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Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Division 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020 Every Dead Thing copyright © 2000 by John Connolly Dark Hollow copyright © 2002 by John Connolly The Killing Kind copyright © 2002 by John Connolly The White Road copyright © 2003 by John Connolly Bad Men copyright © 2004 by John Connolly The Black Angel copyright © 2005 by John Connolly The Unquiet copyright © 2007 by John Connolly The Reapers copyright © 2008 by John Connolly The Lovers copyright © 2009 by John Connolly The Whisperers copyright © 2010 by John Connolly All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. This book contains excerpts from books previously or soon to be published individually by Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Division. Visit our website: http://www.SimonandSchuster.com
Every Dead Thing Chapter 1 The waitress was in her fifties, dressed in a tight black miniskirt, white blouse, and black high heels. Parts of her spilled out of every item of clothing she wore, making her look like she had swollen mysteriously sometime between dressing and arriving for work. She called me "darlin'" each time she filled my coffee cup. She didn't say anything else, which was fine by me. I had been sitting at the window for over ninety minutes now, watching the brownstone across the street, and the waitress must have been wondering exactly how long I was planning to stay and if I was ever going to pay the check. Outside, the streets of Astoria buzzed with bargain hunters. I had even read the New York Times from start to finish without nodding off in between as I passed the time waiting for Fat Ollie Watts to emerge from hiding. My patience was wearing thin. In moments of weakness, I sometimes considered ditching the New York Times on weekdays and limiting my purchase to the Sunday edition, when I could at least justify buying it on the grounds of bulk. The other option was to begin reading the Post, although then I'd have to start clipping coupons and walking to the store in my bedroom slippers. Maybe in reacting so badly to the Times that morning I was simply killing the messenger. It had been announced that Hansel McGee, a state Supreme Court judge and, according to some, one of the worst judges in New York, was retiring in December and might be nominated to the board of the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation. Even seeing McGee's name in print made me ill. In the 1980s, he had presided over the case of a woman who had been raped when she was nine years old by a fifty-four-year-old man named James Johnson, an attendant in Pelham Bay Park who had convictions for robbery, assault, and rape. McGee overturned a jury award to the woman of $3.5 million with the following words: "An innocent child was heinously raped for no reason at all; yet that is one of the risks of living in a modern society." At the time, his judgment had seemed callous and an absurd justification for overturning the ruling. Now, seeing his name before me again after what had happened to my family, his views seemed so much more abhorrent, a symptom of the collapse of goodness in the face of evil. Erasing McGee from my mind, I folded the newspaper neatly, tapped a number on my cell phone, and turned my eyes to an upper window of the slightly run-down apartment building opposite. The phone was picked up after three rings and a woman's voice whispered a cautious hello. It had the sound of cigarettes and booze to it, like a bar door scraping across a dusty floor. "Tell your fat asshole boyfriend that I'm on my way to pick him up and he'd better not make me chase him," I told her. "I'm real tired and I don't plan on running around in this heat." Succinct,
that was me. I hung up, left five dollars on the table, and stepped out onto the street to wait for Fat Ollie Watts to panic. The city was in the middle of a hot, humid summer spell, which was due to end the following day with the arrival of thunderstorms and rain. Currently, it was hot enough to allow for T-shirts, chinos, and overpriced sunglasses, or, if you were unlucky enough to be holding down a responsible job, hot enough to make you sweat like a pig under your suit as soon as you left the a/c behind. There wasn't even a gust of wind to rearrange the heat. Two days earlier, a solitary desk fan had struggled to make an impact on the sluggish warmth in the Brooklyn Heights office of Benny Low. Through an open window I could hear Arabic being spoken on Atlantic Avenue and I could smell the cooking scents coming from the Moroccan Star, half a block away. Benny was a minor-league bail bondsman who had banked on Fat Ollie staying put until his trial. The fact that he had misjudged Fat Ollie's faith in the justice system was one reason why Benny continued to remain a minor-league bondsman. The money being offered on Fat Ollie Watts was reasonable, and there were things living on the bottom of ponds that were smarter than most bail jumpers. There was a fifty-thousand-dollar bond on Fat Ollie, the result of a misunderstanding between Ollie and the forces of law and order over the precise ownership of a 1993 Chevy Beretta, a 1990 Mercedes 300 SE, and a number of well-appointed sport utility vehicles, all of which had come into Ollie's possession by illegal means. Fat Ollie's day started to go downhill when an eagle-eyed patrolman familiar with Ollie's reputation as something less than a shining light in the darkness of a lawless world spotted the Chevy under a tarpaulin and called for a check on the plates. They were false and Ollie was raided, arrested, and questioned. He kept his mouth shut but packed a bag and headed for the hills as soon as he made bail, in an effort to avoid further questions about who had placed the cars in his care. That source was reputed to be Salvatore "Sonny" Ferrera, the son of a prominent capo. There had been rumors lately that relations between father and son had deteriorated in recent weeks, but nobody was saying why. "Fuckin' goomba stuff," as Benny Low had put it that day in his office. "Anything to do with Fat Ollie?" "Fuck do I know? You want to call Ferrera and ask?" I looked at Benny Low. He was completely bald and had been since his early twenties, as far as I knew. His glabrous skull glistened with tiny beads of perspiration. His cheeks were ruddy and flesh hung from his chin and jowls like melted wax. His tiny office, located above a halal store, smelled of sweat and mold. I wasn't even sure why I had said I would take the job. I had money - insurance money, money from the sale of the house, money from what had once been a shared account, even some cash from my retirement fund -- and Benny Low's money wasn't going to make me any happier. Maybe Fat Ollie was just something to do.
Benny Low swallowed once, loudly. "What? Why are you lookin' at me like that?" "You know me, Benny, don't you?" "Fuck does that mean? Course I know you. You want a reference? What?" He laughed halfheartedly, spreading his pudgy hands wide as if in supplication. "What?" he said again. His voice faltered, and for the first time, he actually looked scared. I knew that people had been talking about me in the months since the deaths, talking about things I had done, things I might have done. The look in Benny Low's eyes told me that he had heard about them too and believed that they could be true. Something about Fat Ollie's flight just didn't sit right. It wouldn't be the first time that Ollie had faced a judge on a stolen vehicles rap, although the suspected connection to the Ferreras had forced the bond up on this occasion. Ollie had a good lawyer to rely on; otherwise his only connection to the automobile industry would have come from making license plates on Rikers Island. There was no particular reason for Ollie to run, and no reason why he would risk his life by fingering Sonny over something like this. "Nothing, Benny. It's nothing. You hear anything else, you tell me." "Sure, sure," said Benny, relaxing again. "You'll be the first to know." As I left his office, I heard him mutter under his breath. I couldn't be sure what he said but I knew what it sounded like. It sounded like Benny Low had just called me a killer like my father. It had taken me most of the next day to locate Ollie's current squeeze through some judicious questioning, and another fifty minutes that morning to determine if Ollie was with her through the simple expedient of calling the local Thai food joints and asking them if they had made any deliveries to the address in the last week. Ollie was a Thai food freak and, like most skips, stuck to his habits even while on the run. People don't change very much, which usually makes the dumb ones easy to find. They take out subscriptions to the same magazines, eat in the same places, drink the same beers, call the same women, sleep with the same men. After I threatened to call the health inspectors, an Oriental roach motel called the Bangkok Sun House confirmed deliveries to one Monica Mulrane at an address in Astoria, leading to coffee, the New York Times, and a phone call to wake Ollie up. True to form and dim as a ten-watt bulb, Ollie opened the door of 2317 about four minutes after my call, stuck his head out, and then commenced an awkward, shambling run down the steps toward the sidewalk. He was an absurd figure, strands of hair slicked across his bald pate, the elasticated waistband of his tan pants stretched across a stomach of awesome size. Monica Mulrane must have loved him a whole lot to stay with him, because he didn't have money and he sure as hell didn't have looks. It was strange, but I kind of liked Fat Ollie Watts. He had just set foot on the sidewalk when a jogger wearing a gray sweat suit with the hood pulled up appeared at the corner, ran up to Ollie, and pumped three shots into him from a
silenced pistol. Ollie's white shirt was suddenly polka-dotted with red and he folded to the ground. The jogger, left-handed, stood over him and shot him once more in the head. Someone screamed and I saw a brunette, presumably the by now recently bereaved Monica Mulrane, pause at the door of her apartment block before she ran to the sidewalk to kneel beside Ollie, passing her hands over his bald, bloodied head and crying. The jogger was already backing off, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a fighter waiting for the bell. Then he stopped, returned, and fired a single shot into the top of the woman's head. She folded over the body of Ollie Watts, her back shielding his head. Bystanders were already running for cover behind cars, into stores, and the cars on the street ground to a halt. I was almost across the street, my Smith & Wesson in my hand, when the jogger ran. He kept his head down and moved fast, the gun still held in his left hand. Even though he wore black gloves, he hadn't dropped the gun at the scene. Either the gun was distinctive or the shooter was dumb. I was banking on the second option. I was gaining on him when a black Chevy Caprice with tinted windows screeched out from a side street and stood waiting for him. If I didn't shoot, he was going to get away. If I did shoot, there would be hell to pay with the cops. I made my choice. He had almost reached the Chevy when I squeezed off two shots, one hitting the door of the car and the second tearing a bloody hole in the right arm of the jogger's top. He spun, firing two wild shots in my direction as he did so, and I could see his eyes were wide and ultrabright. The killer was wired. As he turned toward the Chevy it sped away, the driver spooked by my shots, leaving Fat Ollie's killer stranded. He fired off another shot, which shattered the window of the car to my left. I could hear people screaming and, in the distance, the wail of approaching sirens. The jogger sprinted toward an alley, glancing over his shoulder at the sound of my shoes hammering on the road behind him. As I made the corner a bullet whined off the wall above me, peppering me with pieces of concrete. I looked up to see the jogger moving beyond the midpoint of the alley, staying close to the wall. If he got around the corner at the end, I would lose him in the crowds. The gap at the end of the alley was, briefly, clear of people. I decided to risk the shot. The sun was behind me as I straightened, firing twice in quick succession. I was vaguely aware of people at either side of me scattering like pigeons from a stone as the jogger's right shoulder arched back with the impact of one of my shots. I shouted at him to drop the piece but he turned awkwardly, his left hand bringing the gun up. Slightly off balance, I fired two more shots from around twenty feet. His left knee exploded as one of the hollow points connected, and he collapsed against the wall of the alley, his pistol skidding harmlessly away toward some trash cans and black bags. As I closed on him I could see he was ashen faced, his mouth twisted in pain and his left hand gripping the air around his shattered knee without actually touching the wound. Yet his eyes were still bright and I thought I heard him giggle as he pushed himself from the wall and tried to hop away on his good leg. I was maybe fifteen feet from him when his giggles were drowned by the sound of brakes squealing in front of him. I looked up to see the black Chevy blocking the
end of the alley, the window on its passenger side down, and then the darkness within was broken by a single muzzle flash. Fat Ollie's killer bucked and fell forward on the ground. He spasmed once and I could see a red stain spreading across the back of his top. There was a second shot, the back of his head blew a geyser of blood in the air and his face banged once on the filthy concrete of the alley. I was already making for the cover of the trash cans when a bullet whacked into the brickwork above my head, showering me with dust and literally boring a hole through the wall. Then the window of the Chevy roiled up and the car shot off to the east. I ran to where the jogger lay. Blood flowed from the wounds in his body, creating a dark red shadow on the ground. The sirens were close now and I could see onlookers gathered in the sunlight, watching me as I stood over the body. The patrol car pulled up minutes later. I already had my hands in the air and my gun on the ground before me, my permit beside it. Fat Ollie's killer was lying at my feet, blood now pooled around his head and linked to the red tide that was congealing slowly in the alley's central gutter. One patrolman kept me covered while his partner patted me down, with more force than was strictly necessary, against the wall. The cop patting me down was young, perhaps no more than twenty-three or twenty-four, and cocky as hell. "Shit, we got Wyatt Earp here, Sam," he said. "Shootin' it out like it was High Noon." "Wyatt Earp wasn't in High Noon," I corrected him, as his partner checked my ID. The cop punched me hard in the kidneys in response and I fell to my knees. I heard more sirens nearby, including the tell-tale whine of an ambulance. "You're a funny guy, hotshot," said the young cop. "Why'd you shoot him?" "You weren't around," I replied, my teeth gritted in pain. "If you'd been here I'd have shot you instead." He was just about to cuff me when a voice I recognized said: "Put it away, Harley." I looked over my shoulder at his partner, Sam Rees. I recognized him from my days on the force and he recognized me. I don't think he liked what he saw. "He used to be a cop. Leave him be." And then the three of us waited in silence until the others joined us. Two more blue-and-whites arrived before a mud brown Nova dumped a figure in plain clothes on the curb. I looked up to see Walter Cole walking toward me. I hadn't seen him in almost six months, not since his promotion to lieutenant. He was wearing a long brown leather coat, incongruous in the heat. "Ollie Watts?" he said, indicating the shooter with an inclination of his head. I nodded.
He left me alone for a time as he spoke with uniformed cops and detectives from the local precinct. I noticed that he was sweating heavily in his coat. "You can come in my car," he said when he eventually returned, eyeing the cop called Harley with ill-concealed distaste. He motioned some more detectives toward him and made some final comments in quiet, measured tones before waving me toward the Nova. "Nice coat," I said appreciatively as we walked to his car. "How many girls you got in your stable?" Walter's eyes glinted briefly. "Lee gave me this coat for my birthday. Why do you think I'm wearing it in this goddamned heat? You fire any shots?" "A couple." "You do know that there are laws against discharging firearms in public places, don't you?" "I know that but I'm not sure about the guy dead on the ground back there. I'm not sure that the guy who shot him knows either. Maybe you could try a poster campaign." "Very funny. Now get in the car." I did as he said and we pulled away from the curb, the onlookers gaping curiously at us as we headed off through the crowded streets. Copyright © 1999 by John Connolly
Dark Hollow Prologue I dream dark dreams. I dream of a figure moving through the forest, of children flying from his path, of young women crying at his coming. I dream of snow and ice, of bare branches and moon-cast shadows. I dream of dancers floating in the air, stepping lightly even in death, and my own pain is but a faint echo of their suffering as I run. My blood is black on the snow, and the edges of the world are silvered with moonlight. I run into the darkness, and he is waiting. I dream in black and white, and I dream of him. I dream of Caleb, who does not exist, and I am afraid. The Dodge Intrepid stood beneath a stand of firs, its windshield facing out to sea, the lights off, the key in the ignition to keep the heater running. No snow had fallen this far south, not yet, but there was frost on the ground. From nearby came the sound of the waves breaking on Ferry Beach, the only noise to disturb the stillness of this Maine winter night. A floating jetty bobbed close to the shore, lobster pots piled high upon it. Four boats lay shrouded in tarpaulin behind the red wooden boathouse, and a catamaran was tied down close to the public access boat ramp. Otherwise, the parking lot was empty. The passenger door opened and Chester Nash climbed quickly into the car, his teeth chattering and his long brown coat drawn tightly around him. Chester was small and wiry, with long dark hair and a sliver of a mustache on his upper lip that stretched down beyond the corners of his mouth. He thought the mustache made him look dashing. Everyone else thought it made him look mournful, thus the nickname “Cheerful Chester.” If there was one thing guaranteed to make Chester Nash mad, it was people calling him Cheerful Chester. He had once stuck his gun in Paulie Block’s mouth for calling him Cheerful Chester. Paulie Block had almost ripped his arm off for doing it, although, as he explained to Cheerful Chester while he slapped him repeatedly across the head with hands as big as shovels, he understood the reason why Chester had done it. Reasons just didn’t excuse everything, that was all. “I hope you washed your hands,” said Paulie Block, who sat in the driver’s seat of the Dodge, maybe wondering why Chester couldn’t have taken a leak earlier like any normal individual instead of insisting on pissing against a tree in the woods by the shore and letting all of the heat out of the car while he did it. “Man, it’s cold,” said Chester. “This is the coldest goddamn place I have ever been in my whole goddamn life. My meat nearly froze out there. Any colder, I’da pissed ice cubes.” Paulie Block took a long drag on his cigarette and watched as the tip flared briefly red before returning to gray ash. Paulie Block was aptly named. He was six-three, weighed two-eighty and had a face that looked like it had been used to shunt trains. He made the interior of the car look cramped just by being there. All things considered, Paulie Block could have made Giants Stadium look cramped just by being there. Chester glanced at the digital clock on the dash, the green numerals seeming to hang suspended in the dark. “They’re late,” he said. “They’ll be here,” said Paulie. “They’ll be here.”
He returned to his cigarette and stared out to sea. He probably didn’t look too hard. There was nothing to be seen, just blackness and the lights of Old Orchard Beach beyond. Beside him, Chester Nash began playing with a Game Boy. Outside, the wind blew and the waves washed rhythmically on the beach, and the sound of their voices carried over the cold ground to where others were watching, and listening. “. . . Subject Two is back in vehicle. Man, it’s cold,” said FBI Special Agent Dale Nutley, unconsciously repeating the words that he had just heard Chester Nash speak. A parabolic microphone stood beside him, positioned close to a small gap in the wall of the boathouse. Next to it, a voice-activated Nagra tape recorder whirred softly and a Badger Mk II low-light camera kept a vigil on the Dodge. Nutley wore two pairs of socks, long johns, denims, a T-shirt, a cotton shirt, a wool sweater, a Lowe ski jacket, thermal gloves and a gray alpaca hat with two little flaps that hung down over the headphones and kept his ears warm. Special Agent Rob Briscoe, who sat beside him on a tall stool, thought the alpaca hat made Nutley look like a llama herder, or the lead singer with the Spin Doctors. Either way, Nutley looked like a clown in his alpaca hat, with its damn flaps to keep his ears warm. Agent Briscoe, whose ears were very cold, wanted that alpaca hat. If it got any colder, he figured he might just have to kill Dale Nutley and take the hat from his dead head. The boathouse stood to the right of the Ferry Beach parking lot, giving its occupants a clear view of the Dodge. Behind it, a private road followed the shore, leading to one of the summer houses below the Neck. From the lot, Ferry Road snaked back to Black Point Road, leading ultimately to Oak Hill and U.S.1 to the north and the Neck to the southeast. The boathouse windows had received a reflective coating barely two hours before, in order to prevent anyone from seeing the agents inside. There had been a brief moment of apprehension when Chester Nash had peered in the window and tested the locks on the doors before running quickly back to the Dodge. Unfortunately, the boathouse had no heating, at least none that worked, and the FBI had not seen fit to provide the two special agents with a heater. As a result, Nutley and Briscoe were about as cold as they had ever been. The bare boards of the boathouse were icy to the touch. “How long we been here?” asked Nutley. Two hours,” replied Briscoe. “You cold?” “What sort of a stupid question is that? I’m covered in frost. Of course I’m fucking cold.” “Why didn’t you bring a hat?” asked Nutley. “You know, you lose most of your body heat through the top of your head? You should have brought a hat. That’s why you’re cold. You should have brought a hat.” “You know what, Nutley?” said Briscoe. “What?” said Nutley. “I hate you.”
Behind them, the Nagra whirred softly, recording the conversation of the two agents. Everything was to be recorded. That was the rule on this operation: everything. And if that included Briscoe’s hatred of Nutley because of his alpaca hat, then so be it. The security guard, Oliver Judd, heard her before he saw her. Her feet made a heavy, shuffling noise on the carpeted floor and she was speaking softly to herself as she walked. Regretfully, he stood up in his booth and walked away from his TV and the heater that had been blasting warm air onto his toes. Outside, there was a kind of stillness that presaged further snow. There was no wind, though, which was something. It would soon get worse—December always did— but, this far north, it got worse sooner than it did anywhere else. Sometimes, living in northern Maine could be a bitch. He walked swiftly toward her. “Hey, lady, lady! What are you doing out of bed? You’re gonna catch your death.” The woman started at the last word and looked at Judd for the first time. She was small and thin but carried herself straight, which gave her an imposing air among the other occupants of St. Martha’s Home for the Elderly. Judd didn’t think she was as old as some of the other folks in the home, who were so ancient that they’d bummed cigarettes from people who were later killed in World War I. This one, though, was maybe sixty at most. Judd figured that if she wasn’t old then she was probably infirm, which meant, in layman’s terms, that she was mad, plumb loco. Her hair was silver gray and hung loose over her shoulders and almost to her waist. Her eyes were bright blue and looked straight through Judd and off into the distance. She wore a pair of brown, lace-up boots, a nightgown, a red muffler and a long blue overcoat, which she was but toning as she walked. “I’m leaving,” she replied. She spoke quietly but with absolute determination, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary that a sixty-year-old woman should try to leave a home for the elderly in northern Maine wearing only a nightdress and a cheap coat on a night when the forecast promised more snow to add to the six inches that already lay frozen on the ground. Judd couldn’t figure out how she had slipped past the nurses’ station, still less almost to the main door of the building. Some of these old folks were cunning as foxes, Judd reckoned. Turn your back on them and they’d be gone, heading for the hills or their former homes or off to wed a lover who had died thirty years before. “Now you know you can’t leave,” said Judd. “Come on, you got to go back to bed. I’m going to call for a nurse now, so you stay where you are and we’ll have someone down to take care of you before you know it.” The woman stopped buttoning her coat and looked again at Oliver Judd. It was then that Judd realized for the first time that she was scared: truly, mortally afraid for her life. He couldn’t tell how he knew, except that maybe some kind of primitive sense had kicked in when she came near him. Her eyes were huge and pleading and her hands shook now that they were no longer occupied with her buttons. She was so scared that Judd began to feel a little nervous himself. Then the woman spoke. “He’s coming,” she said. “Who’s coming?” asked Judd. “Caleb. Caleb Kyle is coming.” The woman’s stare was almost hypnotic, her voice trembling with terror. Judd shook his head and took her by the arm.
“Come on,” he said, leading her to a vinyl seat beside his booth. “You sit down here while I call the nurse.” Who in hell was Caleb Kyle? The name was almost familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. He was dialing the number for the nurses’ station when he heard a noise from behind. He turned to see the woman almost on top of him, her eyes now narrow with concentration, her mouth set firmly. Her hands were raised above her head and he lifted his gaze to see what she was holding, his face rising just in time to see the heavy glass vase falling toward him. Then all was darkness. “I can’t see a fucking thing,” said Cheerful Chester Nash. The windows of the car had steamed up, giving Chester an uncomfortably claustrophobic feeling that the huge bulk of Paulie Block did nothing to ease, as he had just told his companion in no uncertain terms. Paulie leaned across Chester and wiped the side window with his sleeve. In the distance, headlights raked the sky. “Quiet,” he said. “They’re coming.” Nutley and Briscoe had also seen the headlights, minutes after Briscoe’s radio had crackled into life to inform the agents that a car was on its way down Old County Road, heading in the direction of Ferry Beach. “You think it’s them?” asked Nutley. “Maybe,” replied Briscoe, brushing icy condensation from his jacket as the Ford Taurus emerged from Ferry Road and pulled up alongside the Dodge. Through their phones, the agents heard Paulie Block ask Cheerful Chester if he was ready to rumble. They heard only a click in response. Briscoe couldn’t be certain, but he thought it was the sound of a safety clicking off. In St. Martha’s Home for the Elderly, a nurse placed a cold compress on the side of Oliver Judd’s head. Ressler, the sergeant out of Dark Hollow, stood by with a reserve patrolman, who was still laughing quietly to himself. There was the faintest trace of a fading smile on Ressler’s lips. In another corner stood Dave Martel, the chief of police in Greenville, five miles south of Dark Hollow, and beside him one of the Fisheries and Wildlife wardens from the town. St. Martha’s was technically in the jurisdiction of Dark Hollow, the last town before the big industrial forests began their sweep toward Canada. Still, Martel had heard about the woman and had come to offer his help in the search if it was needed. He didn’t like Ressler, but liking had nothing to do with whatever action needed to be taken. Martel, who was sharp, quiet and only Greenville’s third chief since the foundation of the town’s small department, didn’t see anything particularly funny about what had just happened. If they didn’t find her soon, she would die. It didn’t require too much cold to kill a sixty-year-old woman, and there was plenty to spare that night. Oliver Judd, who had always wanted to be a cop but was too short, too overweight and too dumb to make the grade, knew the Dark Hollow cops were laughing at him. He figured that they probably had a right to laugh. After all, what kind of security guard gets coldcocked by an old lady? An old lady, what’s more, who now had Oliver Judd’s new Smith & Wesson 625 somewhere on her person.
The search team prepared to move off, headed by Dr. Martin Ryley, the director of the home. Ryley was wrapped up tightly in a hooded parka, gloves and insulated boots. In one hand he carried an emergency medical kit, in the other a big Maglite flashlight. At his feet lay a backpack containing warm clothing, blankets and a thermos filled with soup. “We didn’t pass her on the way in here, so she’s moving across country,” Judd heard someone say. It sounded like Will Patterson, the warden, whose wife worked in a drugstore in Guilford and had an ass like a peach waiting to be bitten. “It’s all hard going,” said Ryley. “South is Beaver Cove, but Chief Martel didn’t see her on his way up here. West is the lake. Looks like she may be just wandering aimlessly through the woods.” Patterson’s radio buzzed and he moved away to talk. Almost immediately, he turned back. “Plane’s spotted her. She’s about one mile northeast of here, moving farther into the forest.” The two Dark Hollow cops and the warden, accompanied by Ryley and a nurse, moved off, one of the cops shouldering the backpack of clothing and blankets. Chief Martel looked at Judd and shrugged. Ressler didn’t want his help, and Martel wasn’t about to stick his nose in where it wasn’t wanted, but he had a bad feeling about what was happening, a very bad feeling. As he watched the group of five heading into the trees, the first small flurries of snow began to fall. “Ho Chi Minh,” said Cheerful Chester. “Pol Pot. Lychee.” The four Cambodians looked at him coldly. They wore matching blue wool overcoats, blue suits with somber ties, and black leather gloves on their hands. Three were young, probably no more than twenty-five or twenty-six, Paulie reckoned. The other was older, with strands of gray seeping through his slicked-back dark hair. He wore glasses and smoked an unfiltered cigarette. In his left hand, he held a black leather briefcase. “Tet. Chairman Mao. Nagasaki,” continued Cheerful Chester. “Will you shut up?” said Paulie Block. “I’m trying to make them feel at home.” The senior Cambodian took a last drag on his cigarette and flicked it toward the beach. “When your friend is finished making a fool of himself, perhaps we can begin?” he said. “See,” said Paulie Block to Cheerful Chester. “That’s how wars start.” “That Chester sure is an asshole,” said Nutley. The conversation between the six men carried clearly to them in the chill night air. Briscoe nodded in agreement. Beside him, Nutley adjusted the camera to zoom in on the case in the Cambodian’s hand, clicked off a frame, then pulled back a little to take in Paulie Block, the Cambodian and the case. Their brief was to watch, listen and record. No interference. The interference part would come later, as soon as all of this—whatever “this” was, since all they had was the meeting point—could be traced back to Tony Celli in Boston. Two cars were waiting to pick up the Dodge at Oak Hill, while a third was positioned behind the Scarborough fire department in case either of the targets took the Spurwink Road to South Portland. A second pair of cars would follow the Cambodians. In addition, there was backup available from the police at both Scarborough and Portland, if required. Still, it was Nutley and Briscoe on point, and they knew it.
Briscoe picked up a Night Hawk scope and trained it on Cheerful Chester Nash. “You see anything unusual about Chester’s coat?” he said. Nutley moved the camera a little to the left. “No,” he said. “Wait. It looks like it’s fifty years old. He doesn’t have his hands in his pockets. He’s got them in those slits below the breast. Pretty awkward way to keep warm, don’t you think?” “Yeah,” said Briscoe. “Real awkward.” “Where is she?” said the Cambodian to Paulie Block. Paulie gestured to the trunk of the car. The Cambodian nodded and handed the briefcase to one of his associates. The case was flicked open and the Cambodian held it, facing forward, so that Paulie and Chester could see what was inside. Chester whistled. “Shit,” he said. “Shit,” said Nutley. “There’s a lot of cash in that case.” Briscoe trained the scope on the notes. “Ouch. We’re talking maybe two mil.” “Enough to buy Tony Celli out of whatever jam he’s in,” said Nutley. “And then some.” “But who’s in the trunk?” asked Nutley. “Well, son, that’s what we’re here to find out.” The group of five moved carefully over the hard ground, their breath puffing white as they went. Around them, the tips of evergreens scraped the sky and welcomed the flakes with their spread branches. The ground here was rocky, and the new snow had made it slick and dangerous. Ryley had already stumbled once, painfully scraping his shin. In the sky above them, they could hear the sound of the Cessna’s engine, one of Currier’s planes from Moosehead Lake, and could see its spotlight picking out something on the ground ahead of them. “If this snow keeps up, the plane’s going to have to turn back,” said Patterson. “Nearly there,” said Ryley. “Another ten minutes and we’ll have her.” A gunshot exploded in the darkness ahead of them, then a second. The light on the plane tilted and started to rise. Patterson’s radio burst out with an angry blast of speech. “Hell,” said Patterson, with a look of disbelief on his face. “She’s shooting at them.” The Cambodian stayed close to Paulie Block as he moved to the rear of the car. Behind them, the younger men pulled back their coats to reveal Uzis hanging from straps on their shoulders. Each kept a hand on the grip, one finger just outside the trigger guard.
“Open it,” said the older man. “You’re the boss,” said Paulie, as he inserted the key in the lock and prepared to lift the trunk. “Paulie’s just here to open the trunk.” If the Cambodian had been listening more intently, he would have noticed that Paulie Block said the words very loudly and very distinctly. “Gun slits,” said Briscoe suddenly. “Fucking gun slits, that’s what they are.” “Gun slits,” repeated Nutley. “Oh, Jesus.” Paulie Block opened the trunk and stepped back. A blast of heat greeted the Cambodian as he moved forward. In the trunk was a blanket, and beneath it was a recognizably human form. The Cambodian leaned in and pulled the blanket back. Beneath it was a man: a man with a sawed-off shotgun. “What is this?” said the Cambodian. “This is good-bye,” said Paulie Block, as the barrels roared and the Cambodian jerked with the impact of the shots. “Fuck,” said Briscoe. “Move! Move!” He drew his SIG and ran for the back door, flipping a switch on his handset and calling for the Scarborough backup to move in as he opened the lock and headed into the night in the direction of the two cars. “What about noninterference?” said Nutley as he followed the older man. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this at all. Cheerful Chester’s coat flew open, revealing the twin short barrels of a pair of Walther MPK submachine guns. Two of the Cambodians were already raising their Uzis when he pulled the triggers. “Sayonara,” said Chester, his mouth widening into a grin. The 9mm parabellums ripped into the three men, tearing through the leather of the briefcase, the expensive wool of their coats, the pristine whiteness of their shirts, the thin shells of their skins. They shattered glass, pierced the metal of the car, pockmarked the vinyl of the seats. It took less than four seconds to empty sixty-four rounds into the three men, leaving them wrinkled and slumped, their warm blood melting the thin layer of frost on the ground. The briefcase had landed face down, some of the tightly packed wads scattering as it fell. Chester and Paulie saw what they had done, and it was good. “Well, what are you waiting for?” said Paulie. “Let’s get the money and get the fuck out of here.” Behind him, the man with the shotgun, whose name was Jimmy Fribb, climbed from the cramped trunk and stretched his legs, his joints creaking. Chester loaded a fresh clip into one of the MPKs and dumped the other in the trunk of the Dodge. He was just leaning down to pick up the fallen money when the two shouts came almost together. “FBI,” said the first voice. “Let me see your hands. Now.”
The other voice was less succinct, and less polite, but probably strangely familiar to Paulie Block. “Get the fuck away from the money,” it said, “or I’ll blow your fucking heads off.” The woman stood in a patch of clear ground, watching the sky. Snow fell on her hair, on her shoulders and on her outstretched arms, the gun clasped in her right hand, her left hand open and empty. Her mouth was gaping and her chest heaved as her aging body tried to cope with its exertions. She seemed not to notice Ryley and the others until they were only thirty feet from her. The nurse hung back behind the others. Ryley, despite Patterson’s objections, took the lead. “Miss Emily,” he said softly. “Miss Emily, it’s me, Dr. Ryley. We’re here to take you home.” The woman looked at him and Ryley suspected, for the first time since they had set out, that Miss Emily was not mad. Her eyes were calm as she watched him, and she almost grinned as he approached. “I’m not going back,” she said. “Miss Emily, it’s cold. You’re going to die out here if you don’t come with us. We’ve brought you blankets and warm clothes, and I have a thermos of chicken soup. We’ll get you warm and comfortable, then we’ll bring you safely back.” The woman actually smiled then, a broad smile with no humor to it, and no trust. “You can’t keep me safe,” she said softly. “Not from him.” Ryley frowned. He recalled something about the woman now, an incident with a visitor and a later report from one of the nurses after Miss Emily claimed that someone had tried to climb in her window. They’d dismissed it, of course, although Judd had taken to wearing his gun on duty as a result. These old folks were nervous, fearful of illness, of strangers, of friends and relatives sometimes, fearful of the cold, of the possibility of falling, fearful for their meager possessions, for their photos, for their fading memories. Fearful of death. “Please, Miss Emily, put the gun down and come back with us. We can keep you safe from harm. No one’s going to hurt you.” She shook her head slowly. Above them, the plane circled, casting a strange white light over her frame, turning her long gray hair to silver fire. “I’m not going back. I’ll face him out here. This is his place, these woods. This is where he’ll be.” Her face changed then. Behind Ryley, Patterson thought he had never seen an expression of such abject terror. Her mouth curled down at the edges, her chin and lips trembled and then the rest of her body began to shake, a strange, violent quivering that was almost like an ecstasy. Tears flowed down her cheeks as she started to speak. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry...” “Please, Miss Emily,” said Ryley, as he moved toward her. “Put the gun down. We have to take you back.”
“I’m not going back,” she repeated. “Please, Miss Emily, you must.” “Then you’ll have to kill me,” she said simply, as she pointed the Smith & Wesson at Ryley and pulled the trigger. Chester and Paulie looked first to their left and then to their right. To their left, in the parking lot, stood a tall man in a black jacket with a handset in one hand and a SIG held before him in the other. Behind him stood another, younger man, also holding a SIG, this time in a two-handed grip, with a gray alpaca hat on his head and flaps hanging down over his ears. To their right, beside a small wooden hut used to collect parking fees during the summer, stood a figure dressed entirely in black, from the tips of his boots to the ski mask covering his head. He held a Ruger pump-action in his hands and he breathed heavily through the round slit in the mask. “Cover him,” said Briscoe to Nutley. Nutley’s SIG shifted from Paulie Block to the black-garbed figure near the edge of the woods. “Drop it, asshole,” said Nutley. The Ruger wavered slightly. “I said, ‘Drop it,’” repeated Nutley, his voice rising to a shout. Briscoe’s eyes moved briefly to take in the figure with the shotgun. It was all Chester Nash needed. He spun and opened fire with the MPK, hitting Briscoe in the arm and Nutley in the chest and head. Nutley died instantly, his alpaca hat turning red as he fell. Briscoe opened fire from where he lay on the road, hitting Chester Nash in the right leg and the groin, the MPK tumbling from his hands as he fell. From the woods came the sound of the Ruger opening up and Paulie Block, his gun in his right hand, bucked as he was hit, the windshield behind him shattering as the shots exited. He slumped to his knees and then fell face down on the ground. Chester Nash tried to reach for the MPK with his right hand, his left hand clasping his injured groin, when Briscoe fired two more shots into him and he ceased moving. Jimmy Fribb dropped his shotgun and raised his hands, just in time to stop Briscoe from killing him. Briscoe was about to rise when, from in front of him, he heard the sound of a shotgun shell being jacked. “Stay down,” said the voice. He did as he was told, placing the SIG on the ground beside him. A black-booted foot kicked the gun away, sending it spinning into the undergrowth. “Put your hands on your head.” Briscoe lifted his hands, his left arm aching as he did so, and watched as the masked figure moved toward him, the Ruger still pointing down. Nutley lay on his back close by, his open eyes staring out at the sea. Christ, thought Briscoe, what a mess. Beyond the trees, he could see headlights and hear the sound of approaching cars. The man with the shotgun heard them too, his head twisting slightly as he placed the last of the cash in the briefcase and closed it. Jimmy Fribb used the distraction to make a lunge for the
discarded SIG but the gunman killed him before he could reach it, firing a shot into his back. Briscoe tightened his grip on his head, his injured arm aching, and started to pray. “Stay flat on the ground and don’t look up,” he was told. Briscoe did as he was told, but kept his eyes open. Blood flowed on the ground beside him and he moved his head slightly to avoid it. When he looked up again, there were headlights in his eyes and the figure in black was gone. Dr. Martin Ryley was forty-eight, and was anxious to see forty-nine. He had two children, a boy and a girl, and a wife called Joanie who cooked him pot roast on Sundays. He wasn’t a very good doctor, which was why he ran an old folks’ home. When Miss Emily Watts fired at him, he hit the ground, covered his head with his hands and began alternately praying and blaspheming. The first shot went somewhere to his left. The second sprayed wet dirt and snow on his face. Behind him, he heard the sound of safety catches clicking off and he shouted: “No, leave her, please. Don’t shoot.” Once again the woods were silent, with only the high buzzing of the Cessna as a distraction. Ryley risked a glance up at Miss Emily. She was crying openly now. Carefully, Ryley rose to his feet. “It’s okay, Miss Emily.” Miss Emily shook her head. “No,” she replied. “It will never be okay.” And she put the mouth of the Smith & Wesson to her left breast and fired. The impact spun her backward and to her left, her feet tangling beneath her as she fell and the fabric of her coat igniting briefly from the muzzle flare. She shuddered once then lay still upon the ground, her blood staining the earth around her, the snow falling on her open eyes, her body lit by the light from above. And around her, the woods watched silently, their branches shifting occasionally to allow the passage of the snow. This is how it began for me, and for another generation: two violent occurrences, taking place almost simultaneously one winter’s night, bound together by a single dark thread that lost itself in tangled memories of distant, brutal acts. Others, some of them close to me, had lived with it for a long, long time, and had died with it. This was an old evil, and old evil has a way of permeating bloodlines and tainting those who played no part in its genesis: the young, the innocent, the vulnerable, the defenseless. It turns life to death and glass to mirrors, creating an image of itself in everything that it touches. All of this I learned later, after the other deaths, after it became clear that something terrible was happening, that something old and foul had emerged from the wilderness. And in all that would come to pass, I was a participant. Maybe, looking back into the past, I had always been a participant without ever really under standing how, or why. But that winter, a whole set of circumstances occurred, each incident separate yet ultimately connected. It opened a channel between what had been and what should never have been again, and worlds ended in the collision. I look back over the years and see myself as I used to be, frozen in former times like a figure in a series of vignettes. I see myself as a young boy waiting for the first sight of my father as he returns from his day’s exertions in the city, his policeman’s uniform now put away, a black gym bag in his left hand, his once muscular form running a little to fat, his hair grayer than it used to be, his eyes a little more tired. I run to him and he sweeps me up into the crook of his right arm, his fingers closing gently on my thigh, and I am amazed at his strength, at the muscles bunched below his shoulder, his biceps tight and hard. I want to be
him, to emulate his achievements and to sculpt my body in his likeness. And when he begins to come apart, when his body is revealed only as the flawed shield for a fragile mind, then I, too, start to fall to pieces. I see myself as an older boy, standing by my father’s grave, only a handful of New York policemen straight and tall beside me, so that I too have to be straight and tall. These are his closest friends, the ones who are not ashamed to come. This is not a place where many wish to be seen; there is bad feeling in the city about what has taken place, and only a loyal few are willing to have their reputations frozen in the flare of a newsman’s flashbulb.
I see my mother to my right, coiled in grief. Her husband—the man she has loved for so long—is gone, and with him the reality of him as a kind man, a family man, a father who could sweep his boy into the air like a leaf on the wind. Instead, he will forever be remembered as a murderer, a suicide. He has killed a young man and a young woman, both unarmed, for reasons that no one will ever properly explain, reasons that lay in the depths of those tired eyes. They had taunted him, this thug making the transition from juvenile to adult courts and his middle-class girlfriend with his dirt under her manicured nails, and he had killed them, seeing in them something beyond what they were, beyond even what they might become. Then he had put his gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I see myself as a young man, standing at another grave, watching as they lower my mother down. Beside me now is the old man, my grandfather. We have traveled down from Scarborough, Maine—the place to which we fled after the death of my father, the place in which my mother was born—for the funeral, so that my mother can be buried beside my father, as she has always wished, for she has never stopped loving him. Around us, old men and women have gathered. I am the youngest person present. I see snowfalls in winter. I see the old man grow older. I leave Scarborough. I become a policeman, like my father, like my grandfather. There is a legacy to be acknowledged, and I will not be found wanting. When my grandfather dies, I return to Scarborough and fill in the grave myself, spadefuls of earth carefully falling on the pine casket. The morning sun shines down on the cemetery and I can smell the salt on the air, carried from the marshes to the east and the west. Nearby, a golden-crowned kinglet chases cluster flies, filthy gray insects that lay their eggs inside living earthworms, their young eventually consuming the host from within, and seek shelter from the winter in the chinks and cracks of houses. Above, the first of the Canada geese head south for the winter, a pair of ravens flanking them like black fighters escorting a flight of bombers. And as the last patch of wood disappears, I hear the sound of children’s voices coming from the Lil Folks Farm nursery school close by the cemetery, the noise of their games high and joyful, and I cannot help but smile, for the old man would have smiled as well. And then there is one more grave, one more set of prayers read from a tattered book, and this one tears my world apart. Two bodies are laid down to rest side by side, just as I used to find them resting close to each other when I returned at night to our Brooklyn home, my three-year-old daughter sleeping quietly in the curled quarter-moon of her mother’s form. In one instant, I ceased to be a husband. I ceased to be a father. I had failed to protect them, and they had been punished for my failings. All of these images, all of these memories, like the forged links of a chain, stretch back into the darkness. They should be put away, but the past is not so easily denied. Things left unfinished, things left unsaid, they all, in the end, come back to haunt us. For this is the world, and the echo of worlds.
The Killing Kind Chapter One It was spring, and color had returned to the world. The distant mountains were transforming, the gray trees now cloaking themselves in new life, their leaves a faded echo of fall's riot. The scarlets of the red maples were dominant, but they were being joined now by the greenish yellow leaves of the red oaks; the silver of the bigtooth aspens; and the greens of the quaking aspens, the birches, and the beeches. Poplars and willows, elms and hazelnuts were all bursting into full bloom, and the woods were ringing with the noise of returning birds. I could see the woods from the gym at One City Center, the tips of the evergreens still dominating the landscape amid the slowly transforming seasonals. Rain was falling on the streets of Portland and umbrellas swarmed on the streets below, glistening darkly like the carapaces of squat black beetles. For the first time in many months, I felt good. I was in semiregular employment. I was eating well, working out three or four days each week, and Rachel Wolfe was coming up from Boston for the weekend, so I would have someone to admire my improving physique. I hadn't suffered bad dreams for some time. My dead wife and my lost daughter had not appeared to me since the previous Christmas, when they touched me amid the falling snow and gave me some respite from the visions that had haunted me for so long. I completed a set of military presses and laid the bar down, sweat dripping from my nose and rising in little wisps of steam from my body. Seated on a bench, sipping some water, I watched the two men enter from the reception area, glance around, then fix on me. They wore conservative dark suits with somber ties. One was large, with brown wavy hair and a thick mustache, like a porn star gone to seed, the bulge of the gun in the cheap rig beneath his jacket visible to me in the mirror behind him. The other was smaller, a tidy, dapper man with receding, prematurely graying hair. The big man held a pair of shades in his hand while his companion wore a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses with square frames. He smiled as he approached me. "Mr. Parker?" he asked, his hands clasped behind his back. I nodded and the hands disengaged, the right extending toward me in a sharp motion like a shark making its way through familiar waters. "My name is Quentin Harrold, Mr. Parker," he said. "I work for Mr. Jack Mercier." I wiped my own right hand on a towel to remove some of the sweat, then accepted the handshake. Harrold's mouth quivered a little as my still sweaty palm gripped his, but he resisted the temptation to wipe his hand clean on the side of his trousers. I guessed that he didn't want to spoil the crease.
Jack Mercier came from money so old that some of it had jangled on the Mayflower. He was a former U.S. senator, as his father and grandfather had been before him, and lived in a big house out on Prouts Neck overlooking the sea. He had interests in timber companies, newspaper publishing, cable television, software, and the Internet. In fact, he had interests in just about anything that might ensure the Merciers' old money was regularly replenished with injections of new money. As a senator he had been something of a liberal and he still supported various ecological and civil rights groups through generous donations. He was a family man; he didn't screw around -- as far as anyone knew -- and he had emerged from his brief flirtation with politics with his reputation enhanced rather than tarnished, a product as much of his financial independence as of any moral probity. There were rumors that he was planning a return to politics, possibly as an independent candidate for governor, although Mercier himself had yet to confirm them. Quentin Harrold coughed into his palm, then used it as an excuse to take a handkerchief from his pocket and discreetly wipe his hand. "Mr. Mercier would like to see you," he said, in the tone of voice he probably reserved for the pool cleaner and the chauffeur. "He has some work for you." I looked at him. He smiled. I smiled back. We stayed like that, grinning at each other, until the only options were to speak or start dating. Harrold took the first option. "Perhaps you didn't hear me, Mr. Parker," he said. "Mr. Mercier has some work for you." "And?" Harrold's smile wavered. "I'm not sure what you mean." "I'm not so desperate for work, Mr. Harrold, that I run and fetch every time somebody throws a stick." This wasn't entirely true. Portland, Maine, wasn't such a wellspring of vice and corruption that I could afford to look down my nose at too many jobs. If Harrold had been better looking and a different sex, I'd have fetched the stick and then rolled onto my back to have my belly rubbed if I thought it might have earned me more than a couple of bucks. Harrold glanced at the big guy with the mustache. The big guy shrugged, then went back to staring at me impassively, maybe trying to figure out what my head would look like mounted over his fireplace. Harrold coughed again. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to offend you." He seemed to have trouble forming the words, as if they were part of someone else's vocabulary and he was just borrowing them for a time. I waited for his nose to start growing or his tongue to turn to ash and fall to the floor, but nothing happened. "We'd be grateful if you'd spare the time to talk to Mr. Mercier," he conceded with a wince. I figured that I'd played hard to get for long enough, although I still wasn't sure that they'd respect me in the morning. "When I've finished up here, I can probably drive out and see him," I said.
Harrold craned his neck slightly, indicating that he believed he might have misheard me. "Mr. Mercier was hoping that you could come with us now, Mr. Parker. Mr. Mercier is a very busy man, as I'm sure you'll understand." I stood up, stretched, and prepared to do another set of presses. "Oh, I understand, Mr. Harrold. I'll be as quick as I can. Why don't you gentlemen wait downstairs, and I'll join you when I'm done? You're making me nervous. I might drop a weight on you." Harrold shifted on his feet for a moment, then nodded. "We'll be in the lobby," he said. "Enjoy," I replied, then watched them in the mirror as they walked away. I took my time finishing my workout, then had a long shower and talked about the future of the Pirates with the guy who was cleaning out the changing room. When I figured that Harrold and the porn star had spent enough time looking at their watches, I took the elevator down to the lobby and waited for them to join me. The expression on Harrold's face, I noticed, was oscillating between annoyance and relief. Harrold insisted that I accompany him and his companion in their Mercedes, but despite their protests I opted to follow them in my own Mustang. It struck me that I was becoming more willfully perverse as I settled into my midthirties. If Harrold had told me to take my own car, I'd probably have chained myself to the steering column of the Mercedes until they agreed to give me a ride. The Mustang was a 1969 Boss 302, and replaced the Mach 1 that had been shot to pieces the previous year. The 302 had been sourced for me by Willie Brew, who ran an auto shop down in Queens. The spoilers and wings were kind of over the top, but it made my eyes water when it accelerated and Willie had sold it to me for $8,000, which was about $3,000 less than a car in its condition was worth. The downside was that I might as well have had arrested adolescence painted on the side in big black letters. I followed the Mercedes south out of Portland and on to U.S. 1. At Oak Hill, we turned east and I stayed behind them at a steady thirty all the way to the tip of the Neck. At the Black Point Inn, guests sat at the picture windows, staring out with drinks in their hands at Grand Beach and Pine Point. A Scarborough PD cruiser inched along the road, making sure that everybody stayed under thirty and nobody unwanted hung around long enough to spoil the view. Jack Mercier had his home on Winslow Homer Road, within sight of the painter's former house. As we approached, an electronically operated barrier opened and a second Mercedes swept toward us from the house, headed for Black Point Road. In the backseat sat a small man with a dark beard and a skullcap on his head. We exchanged a look as the two cars passed each other, and he nodded at me. His face was familiar, I thought, but I couldn't place it. Then the road was clear and we continued on our way.
Mercier's home was a huge white place with landscaped gardens and so many rooms that a search party would have to be organized if anybody got lost on the way to the bathroom. The man with the mustache parked the Mercedes while I followed Harrold through the large double front doors, down the hallway, and into a room to the left of the main stairs. It was a library, furnished with antique couches and chairs. Books stretched to the ceiling on three walls; on the east-facing wall, a window looked out on the grounds and the sea beyond, a desk and chair beside it and a small bar to the right. Harrold closed the door behind me and left me to examine the spines on the books and the photographs on the wall. The books ranged from political biographies to historical works, mainly examinations of the Civil War, Korea, and Vietnam. There was no fiction. In one corner was a small locked cabinet with a glass front. The books it contained were different from those on the open shelves. They had titles like Myth and History in the Book of Revelation; Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry; The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire; and The Apocalyptic Sublime. It was cheerful stuff: bedtime reading for the end of the world. There were also critical biographies of the artists William Blake, Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Jean Duvet, in addition to facsimile editions of what appeared to be medieval texts. Finally, on the top shelf were twelve almost identical slim volumes, each bound in black leather with six gold bands inset on the spine in three equidistant sets of two. At the base of each spine was the last letter of the Greek alphabet: W, for omega. There was no key in the lock, and the doors stayed closed when I gave them an experimental tug. I turned my attention to the photographs on the walls. There were pictures of Jack Mercier with various Kennedys, Clintons, and even a superannuated Jimmy Carter. Others showed Mercier in an assortment of athletic poses from his youth: winning races, pretending to toss footballs, and being carried aloft on the shoulders of his adoring teammates. There were also testimonials from grateful universities, framed awards from charitable organizations headed by movie stars, and even some medals presented by poor but proud nations. It was like an underachiever's worst nightmare. One more recent photograph caught my eye. It showed Mercier sitting at a table, flanked on one side by a woman in her sixties wearing a smartly tailored black jacket and a string of pearls around her neck. To Mercier's right was the bearded man who had passed me in the Mercedes, and beside him was a figure I recognized from his appearances on prime-time news shows, usually looking triumphant at the top of some courthouse steps: Warren Ober, of Ober, Thayer & Moss, one of New England's top law firms. Ober was Mercier's attorney, and even the mention of his name was enough to send most opposition running for the hills. When Ober, Thayer & Moss took a case, they brought so many lawyers with them to court that there was barely enough room for the jury. Even judges got nervous around them. Looking at the photograph, it struck me that nobody in it seemed particularly happy. There was an air of tension about the poses, a sense that some darker business was being conducted and the photographer was an unnecessary distraction. There were thick files on the table before them, and white coffee cups lay discarded like yesterday's roses.
Behind me the door opened and Jack Mercier entered, laying aside on the table a sheaf of papers speckled with bar charts and figures. He was tall, six-two or six-three, with shoulders that spoke of his athletic past and an expensive gold Rolex that indicated his present status as a very wealthy man. His hair was white and thick, swept back from a perma-tanned forehead over large blue eyes, a Roman nose, and a thin, smiling mouth, the teeth white and even. I guessed that he was sixty-five by now, maybe a little older. He wore a blue polo shirt, tan chinos, and brown Sebagos. There was white hair on his arms, and tufts of it peeked out over the collar of his shirt. For a moment the smile on his face faltered as he saw my attention focused on the photograph, but it quickly brightened again as I moved away from it. Meanwhile, Harrold stood at the door like a nervous matchmaker. "Mr. Parker," said Mercier, shaking my hand with enough force to dislodge my fillings. "I appreciate you taking the time to see me." He waved me to a chair. From the hallway, an oliveskinned man in a white tunic appeared with a silver tray and set it down. Two china cups, a silver coffeepot, and a matching silver creamer and sugar bowl jangled softly as the tray hit the table. The tray looked heavy, and the servant seemed kind of relieved to be rid of it. "Thank you," said Mercier. We watched as he left, Harrold behind him. Harrold gently closed the door, giving me one last pained look before he departed, then Mercier and I were alone. "I know a lot about you, Mr. Parker," he began as he poured the coffee and offered me cream and sugar. He had an easy, unaffected manner, designed to put even the most fleeting of acquaintances at ease. It was so unaffected that he must have spent years perfecting it. "Likewise," I replied. He frowned good-naturedly. "I don't imagine you're old enough to have ever voted for me." "No, you retired before it became an issue." "Did your grandfather vote for me?" My grandfather, Bob Warren, had been a Cumberland County sheriff's deputy and had lived in Scarborough all his life. My mother and I had come to stay with him after my father died. In the end, he outlived his own wife and daughter, and I had buried him one autumn day after his great heart failed him at last. "I don't believe he ever voted for anyone, Mr. Mercier," I said. "My grandfather had a natural distrust of politicians." The only politician for whom my grandfather ever had any regard was President Zachary Taylor, who never voted in an election and didn't even vote for himself. Jack Mercier grinned his big white grin again. "He might have been right. Most of them have sold their souls ten times over before they're even elected. Once it's sold, you can never buy it back. You just have to hope that you got the best price for it." "And are you in the business of buying souls, Mr. Mercier, or selling them?"
The grin stayed fixed, but the eyes narrowed. "I take care of my own soul, Mr. Parker, and let other people do as they wish with theirs." Our special moment was broken by the entrance of a woman into the room. She wore a deceptively casual outfit of black pants and a black cashmere sweater, and a thin gold necklace gleamed dully against the dark wool. She was about forty-five, give or take a year. Her hair was blond, fading to gray in places, and there was a hardness to her features that made her seem less beautiful than she probably thought she was. This was Mercier's wife, Deborah, who had some kind of permanent residency in the local society pages. She was a Southern belle, from what I could recall, a graduate of the Madeira School for Girls in Virginia. The Madeira's principal claim to fame, apart from producing eligible young women who always used the correct knife and never spat on the sidewalk, was that its former headmistress, Jean Harris, had shot dead her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, in 1980, after he left her for a younger woman. Dr. Tarnower was best known as the author of The Scarsdale Diet, so his death seemed to provide conclusive evidence that diets could be bad for your health. Jack Mercier had met his future wife at the Swan Ball in Nashville, the most lavish social occasion in the South, and had introduced himself to her by buying her a '55 Coupe de Ville with his AmEx card at the postdinner auction. It was, as someone later commented, love at first swipe. Mrs. Mercier held a magazine in her hand and assumed a look of surprise, but the expression didn't reach her eyes. "I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't know you had company." She was lying, and I could see in Mercier's face that he knew she was lying, that we both knew. He tried to hide his annoyance behind the trademark smile but I could hear his teeth gritting. He rose, and I rose with him. "Mr. Parker, this is my wife Deborah." Mrs. Mercier took one step toward me, then waited for me to cross the rest of the floor before extending her hand. It hung limply in my palm as I gripped it, and her eyes bored holes in my face while her teeth gnawed at my skull. Her hostility was so blatant it was almost funny. "I'm pleased to meet you," she lied, before turning her glare on her husband. "I'll talk to you later, Jack," she said, and made it sound like a threat. She didn't look back as she closed the door. The temperature in the room immediately rose a few degrees, and Mercier regained his composure. "My apologies, Mr. Parker. Tensions in the house are a little high. My daughter Samantha is to be married early next month." "Really. Who's the lucky man?" It seemed polite to ask. "Robert Ober. He's the son of my attorney." "At least your wife will get to buy a new hat."
"She's buying a great deal more than a hat, Mr. Parker, and she is currently occupied by the arrangements for our guests. Warren and I may have to take to my yacht to escape the demands of our respective wives, although they are such excellent sailors themselves that I imagine they will insist upon keeping us company. Do you sail, Mr. Parker?" "With difficulty. I don't have a yacht." "Everybody should have a yacht," remarked Mercier, his good humor returning in earnest. "Why, you're practically a socialist, Mr. Mercier." He laughed softly, then put his coffee cup down and arranged his features into a sincere expression. "I hope you'll forgive me for prying into your background, but I wanted to find out about you before I requested your help," he continued. I acknowledged his comments with a nod. "In your position, I'd probably do the same," I said. He leaned forward and said gently: "I'm sorry about your family. It was a terrible thing that happened to them, and to you." My wife, Susan, and my daughter, Jennifer, had been taken from me by a killer known as the Traveling Man while I was still a policeman in New York. He had killed a lot of other people too, until he was stopped. When I killed him, a part of me had died with him. Over two years had passed since then, and for much of that time the deaths of Susan and Jennifer had defined me. I had allowed that to be so until I realized that pain and hurt, guilt and regret, were tearing me apart. Now, slowly, I was getting my life back together in Maine, back in the place where I had spent my teens and part of my twenties, back in the house I had shared with my mother and my grandfather, and in which I now lived alone. I had a woman who cared for me, who made me feel that it was worth trying to rebuild my life with her beside me and that maybe the time to begin that process had now arrived. "I can't imagine what such a thing must be like," continued Mercier. "But I know someone who probably can, which is why I've asked you here today." Outside, the rain had stopped and the clouds had parted. Behind Mercier's head, the sun shone brightly through the window, bathing the desk and chair in its glow and replicating the shape of the glasswork on the carpet below. I watched as a bug crawled across the patch of bright light, its tiny feelers testing the air as it went. "His name is Curtis Peltier, Mr. Parker," said Mercier. "He used to be my business partner, a long time ago, until he asked me to buy him out and followed his own path. Things didn't work out so well for him; he made some bad investments, I'm afraid. Ten days ago his daughter was found dead in her car. Her name was Grace Peltier. You may have read about her. In fact, I understand you may have known her once upon a time."
I nodded. Yes, I thought, I knew Grace once upon a time, when we were both much younger and thought that we might, for an instant, even be in love. It was a fleeting thing, lasting no more than a couple of months after my high school graduation, one of any number of similar summer romances that curled up and died like a leaf as soon as autumn came. Grace was pretty and dark, with very blue eyes, a tiny mouth, and skin the color of honey. She was strong -- a medalwinning swimmer -- and formidably intelligent, which meant that despite her looks, a great many young men shied away from her. I wasn't as smart as Grace but I was smart enough to appreciate something beautiful when it appeared before me. At least I thought I was. In the end, I didn't appreciate it, or her, at all. I remembered Grace mostly because of one morning spent at Higgins Beach, not far from where I now sat with Jack Mercier. We stood beneath the shadow of the old guest house known as the Breakers, the wind tossing Grace's hair and the sea crashing before us. She had missed her period, she told me over the phone: five days late, and she was never late. As I drove down to Higgins Beach to meet her, my stomach felt like it was slowly being crushed in a vise. When a fleet of trucks passed by at the Oak Hill intersection, I briefly considered flooring the accelerator and ending it all. I knew then that whatever I felt for Grace Peltier, it wasn't love. She must have seen it in my face that morning as we sat in silence listening to the sound of the sea. When her period arrived two days later, after an agonizing wait for both of us, she told me that she didn't think we should see each other anymore, and I was happy to let her go. It wasn't one of my finer moments, I thought, not by a long shot. Since then, we hadn't stayed in touch. I had seen her once or twice, nodding to her in bars or restaurants, but we had never really spoken. Each time I saw her I was reminded of that meeting at Higgins Beach and of my own callow youth. I tried to recall what I had heard about her death. Grace, now a graduate student at Northeastern in Boston, had died from a single gunshot wound in a side road off U.S. 1, up by Ellsworth. Her body had been discovered slumped in the driver's seat of her car, the gun still in her hand. Suicide: the ultimate form of self-defense. She had been Curtis Peltier's only child. The story had merited more coverage than usual only because of Peltier's former connections to Jack Mercier. I hadn't attended the funeral. "According to the newspaper reports, the police aren't looking for anyone in connection with her death, Mr. Mercier," I said. "They seem to think Grace committed suicide." He shook his head. "Curtis doesn't believe that Grace's wound was self-inflicted." "It's a common enough reaction," I replied. "Nobody wants to accept that someone close might have taken his or her own life. Too much blame accrues to those left behind for it to be accommodated so easily." Mercier stood, and his large frame blocked out the sunlight. I couldn't see the bug anymore. I wondered how it had reacted when the light disappeared. I guessed that it had probably taken it in stride, which is one of the burdens of being a bug: you pretty much have to take everything in stride, until something bigger stamps on you or eats you and the matter becomes immaterial.
"Grace was a strong, smart girl with her whole life ahead of her. She didn't own a gun of any kind and the police don't seem to have any idea where she might have acquired the one found in her hand." "Assuming that she killed herself," I added. "Assuming that, yes." "Which you, in common with Mr. Peltier, don't." He sighed. "I agree with Curtis. Despite the views of the police, I think somebody killed Grace. I'd like you to look into this matter on his behalf." "Did Curtis Peltier approach you about this, Mr. Mercier?" Jack Mercier's gaze shifted. When he looked at me again, something had cloaked itself in the darkness of his pupils. "He came to visit me a few days ago. We discussed it, and he told me what he believed. He doesn't have enough money to pay for a private investigator, Mr. Parker, but thankfully, I do. I don't think Curtis will have any difficulty in talking this over with you, or allowing you to look into it further. I will be paying your bill, but officially you will be working for Curtis. I would ask you to keep my name out of this affair." I finished my coffee and laid the cup down on the saucer. I didn't speak until I had marshaled my thoughts a little. "Mr. Mercier, I didn't mind coming out here but I don't do that kind of work anymore." Mercier's brow furrowed. "But you are a private investigator?" "Yes, sir, I am, but I've made a decision to deal only with certain matters: white-collar crime, corporate intelligence. I don't take on cases involving death or violence." "Do you carry a gun?" "No. Loud noises scare me." "But you used to carry a gun?" "That's right, I used to. Now, if I want to disarm a white-collar criminal, I just take away his pen." "As I told you, Mr. Parker, I know a great deal about you. Investigating fraud and petty theft doesn't appear to be your style. In the past you have involved yourself in more...colorful matters."
"Those kinds of investigations cost me too much." "I'll cover any costs you may incur, and more than adequately." "I don't mean financial cost, Mr. Mercier." He nodded to himself, as if he suddenly understood. "You're talking moral, physical cost, maybe? I understand you were injured in the course of some of your work." I didn't reply. I'd been hurt, and in response I had acted violently, destroying a little of myself each time I did so, but that wasn't the worst of it. It seemed to me that as soon as I became involved in such matters, they caused a fissure in my world. I saw things: lost things, dead things. It was as if my intervention drew them to me, those who had been wrenched painfully, violently from this life. Once I thought it was a product of my own incipient guilt, or an empathy I felt that passed beyond feeling and into hallucination. But now I believed that they really did know, and they really did come. Jack Mercier leaned against his desk, opened his drawer, and drew a black, leather-bound folder from within. He wrote for a few seconds, then tore the check from the folder. "This is a check for ten thousand dollars, Mr. Parker. All I want you to do is talk to Curtis. If you think that there's nothing you can do for him, then the money is yours to keep and there'll be no hard feelings between us. If you do agree to look into this matter, we can negotiate further remuneration." I shook my head. "Once again, it's not the money, Mr. Mercier -- " I began. He raised a hand to stop me. "I know that. I didn't mean to offend you." "No offense taken." "I have friends in the police force, in Scarborough and Portland and farther afield. Those friends tell me that you are a very fine investigator, with very particular talents. I want you to utilize those talents to find out what really happened to Grace, for my sake and for that of Curtis." I noticed that he had placed himself above Grace's father in his appeal and once again I was conscious of a disparity between what he was telling me and what he knew. I thought too of his wife's unveiled hostility, my sense that she had known exactly who I was and why I was in her house, and that she bitterly resented my presence there. Mercier proffered the check and in his eyes I saw something that I couldn't quite identify: grief maybe, or even guilt. "Please, Mr. Parker," he said. "Talk to him. I mean, what harm can it do?"
What harm can it do? Those words would come back to haunt me again and again in the days that followed. They came back to haunt Jack Mercier as well. I wonder if he thought of them in his final moments, as the shadows drew around him and those he loved were drowned in redness. Despite my misgivings I took the check. And in that instant, unbeknownst to us both, a circuit was completed, sending a charge through the world around and beneath us. Far away, something broke from its hiding place beneath the dead layers of the honeycomb. It tested the air, probing for the disturbance that had roused it, until it found the source. Then, with a lurch, it began to move. THE SEARCH FOR SANCTUARY: RELIGIOUS FERVOR IN THE STATE OF MAINE AND THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE AROOSTOOK BAPTISTS Extract from the postgraduate thesis of Grace Peltier, submitted posthumously in accordance with the requirements of the Masters Sociology Program, Northeastern University To understand the reasons for the formation and subsequent disintegration of the religious group known as the Aroostook Baptists, it is important to first understand the history of the state of Maine. To comprehend why four families of well-intentioned and not unintelligent people should have followed an individual such as the Reverend Faulkner into the wilderness, never to be seen again, one must recognize that for almost three centuries men such as Faulkner have gathered followers to them in this state, often in the face of challenges from larger churches and more orthodox religious movements. It may be said, therefore, that there is something in the character of the state's inhabitants, some streak of individualism dating back to pioneer times, that has led them to be attracted to preachers like the Reverend Faulkner. For much of its history, Maine was a frontier state. In fact, from the time when the first Jesuit missionaries arrived in the seventeenth century to the midpart of the twentieth century, religious groups regarded Maine as mission territory. It provided fertile, if not always profitable, ground for itinerant preachers, unorthodox religious movements, and even charlatans for the best part of three hundred years. The rural economy did not allow for the maintenance of permanent churches and clergymen, and religious observance was oftentimes a low priority for families who were undernourished, insufficiently clothed, and lacking proper shelter. In 1790, General Benjamin Lincoln observed that few of those in Maine had been properly baptized, and there were some who had never taken Communion. The Reverend John Murray of Boothbay wrote, in 1763, of the inhabitants' "inveterate habits of vice and no remorse" and thanked God that he had found "one prayerful family, and a humble professor at the head of it." It is interesting to note that the Reverend Faulkner was given to quoting this passage of Murray's in the course of his own sermons to his congregations. Itinerant preachers ministered to those who lacked their own churches. Some were outstanding, frequently having trained at York or Harvard. Others were less praiseworthy. The Reverend Mr. Jotham Sewall of Chesterville, Maine, is reported to have preached 12,593 sermons in 413 settlements, mostly in Maine, between 1783 and 1849. By contrast, the Reverend Martin
Schaeffer of Broad Bay, a Lutheran, comprehensively cheated his flock before eventually being run out of town. Orthodox preachers found it difficult to achieve a foothold in the state, Calvinists being particularly unwelcome as much for their unyielding doctrines as for their associations with the forces of government. Baptists and Methodists, with their concepts of egalitarianism and equality, found more willing converts. In the thirty years between 1790 and 1820, the number of Baptist churches in the state rose from seventeen to sixty. They were joined, in time, by Free Will Baptists, Free Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Universalists, Shakers, Millerites, Spiritualists, Sandfordites, Holy Rollers, Higginsites, Free Thinkers, and Black Stockings. Yet the tradition of Schaeffer and other charlatans still remained: in 1816, the "delusion" of Cochranism grew up around the charismatic Cochrane in the west of the state, ending with charges of gross lewdness being leveled at its founder. In the 1860s, the Reverend Mr. George L. Adams persuaded his followers to sell their homes, stores, even their fishing gear, and to pass the money on to him to help establish a colony in Palestine. Sixteen people died in the first weeks of the Jaffa colony's foundation in 1866. In 1867, amid charges of excessive drinking and misappropriation of funds, Adams and his wife fled the short-lived Jaffa colony, Adams later reemerging in California where he tried to persuade people to invest money in a five-cent savings bank until his secretary exposed his past. Finally, at the turn of this century, the evangelist Frank Weston Sandford founded the Shiloh community in Durham. Sandford is worthy of particular attention because the Shiloh community clearly provided a model for what the Reverend Faulkner attempted to achieve more than half a century later. Sandford's cultlike sect raised huge sums of money for building projects and overseas missions, sending sailing vessels filled with missionaries to remote areas of the planet. His followers were persuaded to sell their homes and move to the Shiloh settlement at Durham, only thirty miles from Portland. Scores of them later died there from malnutrition and disease. It is a testament to the magnetism of Sandford, a native of Bowdoinham, Maine, and a graduate of the divinity school at Bates College, Lewiston, that they were willing to follow him and to die for him. Sandford was only thirty-four when the Shiloh settlement was officially dedicated, on October 2, 1896, a date apparently dictated to Sandford by God himself. Within the space of a few years, and funded largely by donations and the sale of his followers' property, there were over $200,000 worth of buildings on the land. The main building, Shiloh itself, had 520 rooms and was a quarter of a mile in circumference. But Sandford's increasing megalomania -- he claimed that God had proclaimed him the second Elijah -- and his insistence on absolute obedience began to cause friction. A harsh winter in 19023 caused food supplies to shrink, and the community was swept by smallpox. People began to die. In 1904, Sandford was arrested and charged on five counts of cruelty to children and one charge of manslaughter as a result of that winter's depredations. A guilty verdict was later overturned on appeal.
In 1906, Sandford sailed for the Holy Land, taking with him a hundred of the faithful in two vessels, the Kingdom and the Coronet. They spent the next five years at sea, sailing to Africa and South America, although their conversion technique was somewhat unorthodox: the two ships cruised the coast while Sandford's followers prayed continuously for God to bring the natives to him. Actual contact with potential converts was virtually nil. The Kingdom was eventually wrecked off the west coast of Africa, and when Sandford tried to force the crew of the Coronet to sail on to Greenland, they mutinied, forcing him to return to Maine. In 1911, Sandford was sentenced to jail for ten years on charges of manslaughter arising from the deaths of six crewmen. Released in 1918, he set up home in Boston and allowed subordinates to take care of the day-to-day running of Shiloh. In 1920, after hearing testimony of the terrible conditions being endured by the children of the community, a judge ordered their removal. Shiloh disintegrated, its membership falling from four hundred to one hundred in an incident that became known as the Scattering. Sandford announced his retirement in May 1920 and retreated to a farm in upstate New York, from which he attempted, unsuccessfully, to rebuild the community. He died, aged eighty-five, in 1948. The Shiloh community still exists today, although in a very different form from its original inception, and Sandford is still honored as its founder. It is known that Faulkner regarded Sandford as a particular inspiration: Sandford had shown that it was possible to build an independent religious community using donations and the sale of the assets of true believers. It is therefore both ironic and strangely apt that Faulkner's attempt at establishing his own religious utopia, close to the small town of Eagle Lake, should have ended in bitterness and acrimony, near starvation and despair, and finally the disappearance of twenty people, among them Faulkner himself. Copyright © 2001 by John Connolly
The White Road Prologue They are coming. They are coming in their trucks and their cars, plumes of blue smoke following them through the clear night air like stains upon the soul. They are coming with their wives and their children, with their lovers and their sweethearts, talking of crops and animals and journeys they will make; of church bells and Sunday schools; of wedding dresses and the names of children yet unborn; of who said this and who said that, things small and great, the lifeblood of a thousand small towns no different from their own. They are coming with food and drink, and the smell of fried chicken and fresh-baked pies makes their mouths water. They are coming with dirt beneath their nails and beer on their breath. They are coming in pressed shirts and patterned dresses, hair combed and hair wild. They are coming with joy in their hearts and vengeance on their minds and excitement curling like a snake in the hollow of their bellies. They are coming to see the burning man. The two men stopped at Cebert Yaken's gas station, "The Friendliest Little Gas Station in the South," close by the banks of the Ogeechee River on the road to Caina. Cebert had painted the sign himself in 1968 in bright yellows and reds, and every year since then he had climbed onto the flat roof on the first day of April to freshen the colors, so that the sun would never take its toll upon the sign and cause the welcome to fade. Each day, the sign cast its shadow on the clean lot, on the flowers in their boxes, on the shining gas pumps, and on the buckets filled with water so that drivers could wipe the remains of bugs from their windshields. Beyond lay untilled fields, and in the early September heat the shimmer rising from the road made the sassafras dance in the still air. The butterflies mixed with the falling leaves, sleepy oranges and checkered whites and eastern tailed-blues bouncing upward in the wake of passing vehicles like the sails of brightly colored ships tossing on a wild sea. From his stool by the window, Cebert would look out on the arriving cars, checking for out-ofstate tags so that he could prepare a good old Southern welcome, maybe sell some coffee and doughnuts or shift some of the tourist maps, the yellowing of their covers in the sunlight signaling the approaching end of their usefulness. Cebert dressed the part: he wore blue overalls with his name sewn on the left breast, and a CoOp Beef Feeds cap set way back on his head like an afterthought. His hair was white and he had a long mustache that curled exotically over his upper lip, the two ends almost meeting on his chin. Behind his back folks said that it made Cebert look like a bird had just flown up his nose, but they didn't mean nothing by it. Cebert's family had lived in these parts for generations and Cebert was one of their own. He advertised bake sales and picnics in the windows of his gas station and donated to every good cause that came his way. If dressing and acting like Grandpa
Walton helped him sell a little more gas and a couple of extra candy bars, then good luck to Cebert. Above the wooden counter, behind which Cebert sat day in, day out, seven days each week, sharing the duties with his wife and his boy, was a bulletin board headed: "Look Who Dropped By!" Pinned to it were hundreds of business cards. There were more cards on the walls and the window frames, and on the door that led into Cebert's little back office. Thousands of Abe B. Normals or Bob R. Averages, passing through Georgia on their way to sell more photocopy ink or hair-care products, had handed old Cebert their cards so that they could leave a reminder of their visit to the Friendliest Little Gas Station in the South. Cebert never took them down, so that card had piled upon card in a process of accretion, layering like rock. True, some had fallen over the years, or slipped behind the coolers, but for the most part if the Abe B.'s or Bob R.'s passed through again, with a little Abe or Bob in tow, there was a pretty good chance that they would find their cards buried beneath a hundred others, relics of the lives that they had once enjoyed and of the men that they had once been. But the two men who paid for a full tank and put water in the steaming engine of their piece-ofshit Taurus just before five that afternoon weren't the kind who left their business cards. Cebert saw that straight off, felt it as something gave in his belly when they glanced at him. They carried themselves in a way that suggested barely suppressed menace and a potential for lethality that was as definite as a cocked gun or an unsheathed blade. Cebert barely nodded at them when they entered and he sure as hell didn't ask them for a card. These men didn't want to be remembered, and if, like Cebert, you were smart, then you'd pretty much do your best to forget them as soon as they'd paid for their gas (in cash, of course) and the last dust from their car had settled back on the ground. Because if at some later date you did decide to remember them, maybe when the cops came asking and flashing descriptions, then, well, they might hear about it and decide to remember you too. And the next time someone dropped by to see old Cebert they'd be carrying flowers and old Cebert wouldn't get to shoot the breeze or sell them a fading tourist map because old Cebert would be dead and long past worrying about yellowing stock and peeling paint. So Cebert took their money and watched as the shorter one, the little white guy who had topped up the water when they pulled into the gas station, flicked through the cheap CDs and the small stock of paperbacks that Cebert kept on a rack by the door. The other man, the tall black one with the black shirt and the designer jeans, was looking casually at the corners of the ceiling and the shelves behind the counter loaded high with cigarettes. When he was satisfied that there was no camera, he removed his wallet and, using leather-gloved fingers, counted out two tens to pay for the gas and two sodas, then waited quietly while Cebert made change. Their car was the only one at the pumps. It had New York plates and both the plates and the car were kind of dirty, so Cebert couldn't see much except for the make and the color and Miss Liberty peering through the murk. "You need a map?" asked Cebert, hopefully. "Tourist guide, maybe?" "No, thank you," said the black man.
Cebert fumbled in the register. For some reason, his hands had started to shake. Nervous, he found himself making just the kind of inane conversation that he had vowed to avoid. He seemed to be standing outside himself, watching while an old fool with a drooping mustache talked himself into an early grave. "You staying around here?" "No." "Guess we won't be seeing you again, then." "Maybe you won't." There was a tone in the man's voice that made Cebert look up from the register. Cebert's palms were sweating. He flicked a quarter up with his index finger and felt it slide around in a loop in the hollow of his right hand before rattling back into the register drawer. The black man was still standing relaxed on the other side of the counter but there was a tightness around Cebert's throat that he could not explain. It was as if the visitor were two people, one in black jeans and a black shirt with a soft Southern twang to his voice, and the other an unseen presence that had found its way behind the counter and was now slowly constricting Cebert's airways. "Or maybe we might pass through again, sometime," he continued. "You still be here?" "I hope so," croaked Cebert. "You think you'll remember us?" The question was spoken lightly, with what might have been the hint of a smile, but there was no mistaking its meaning. Cebert swallowed. "Mister," he said. "I've forgotten you already." With that, the black man nodded and he and his companion left, and Cebert didn't release his breath until their car was gone from sight and the shadow of the sign cast itself, once again, on an empty lot. And when the cops came asking about the men a day or two later, Cebert shook his head and told them that he didn't know nothing about them, couldn't recall if two guys like them had passed through that week. Hell, lot of people passed through here on the way to 301 or the interstate, kept the place going like a turnstile at Disney World. And anyway, all them black fellers look alike, you know how it is. He gave the cops free coffee and Twinkies and sent them on their way and had to remind himself, for the second time that week, to release his breath. He looked around at the business cards arrayed on every previously blank stretch of wall, then leaned over and blew some dust from the nearest bunch. The name Edward Boatner was revealed. According to his card, Edward sold machine parts for a company out of Hattiesburg,
Mississippi. Well, if Edward came through here again, he could take a look at his card. It would still be there, because Edward wanted to be remembered. But Cebert didn't remember nobody that didn't want to be remembered. He might have been friendly, but he wasn't dumb. A black oak stands on a slope at the northern edge of a green field, its branches like bones set against the moonlit sky. It is an old, old tree; its bark is thick and gray, deeply furrowed with regular vertical ridges, a fossilized relic stranded by a long-departed tide. In places, the orange inner bark has been exposed, exuding a bitter, unpleasant scent. The shiny green leaves are thick upon it: ugly leaves, deep and narrow, with bristle-tipped teeth at the ends of the lobes. But this is not the true smell of the black oak that stands at the edge of Ada's Field. On warm nights when the world is quieted, hand-on-mouth, and the moonlight shines palely on the scorched earth beneath its crown, the black oak discharges a different odor, alien to its kind yet as much a part of this solitary tree as the leaves on its branches and the roots in its soil. It is the smell of gasoline and burning flesh, of human waste and singeing hair, of rubber melting and cotton igniting. It is the smell of painful death, of fear and despair, of final moments lived in the laughter and jeering of onlookers. Step closer, and the lower parts of its branches are blackened and charred. Look, see there, on the trunk: a cloven groove deep in the wood, now faded but once bright, where the bark was suddenly, violently breached. The man who made that mark, the final mark he left upon this world, was born Will Embree, and he had a wife and a child and a job in a grocery store that paid him a dollar an hour. His wife was Lila Embree, or Lila Richardson that was, and her husband's body -- after the ending of the final, desperate struggle that caused his booted foot to strike so hard against the trunk of the tree that he tore the bark from it and left a pit deep in its flesh -- was never returned to her. Instead his remains were burned and the crowd took souvenirs of the blackened bones from his fingers and toes. Someone then sent her a photograph of her dead husband that Jack Morton of Nashville had printed up in batches of five hundred to be used as postcards, Will Embree's features twisted and swollen, the figure standing at his feet grinning as the flames from the torch leap toward the legs of the man Lila loved. His corpse was dumped in a swamp and the fish stripped the last of the charred flesh from his bones until they came apart and were scattered across the mud on the bottom. The bark never reclaimed the breach made by Will Embree and it remained exposed for ever after. The illiterate man had left his mark on the sole monument to his passing as surely as if it had been carved in stone. There are places on this old tree where no leaves ever grow. Butterflies do not rest upon it, and birds do not nest in its branches. When its acorns fall to the ground, fringed with brown hairy scales, they are left to decay. Even the crows turn their black eyes from the rotting fruit. Around the trunk, a vine weaves. Its leaves are broad, and from each node springs a cluster of small green flowers. The flowers smell as if they are decomposing, festering, and in daylight they are black with flies drawn by the stench. This is Smilax herbacea, the carrion flower. There is
not another one like it for a hundred miles in any direction. Like the black oak itself, it is alone of its kind. Here, in Ada's Field, the two entities coexist, parasite and saprophyte: the one fueled by the lifeblood of the tree, the other drawing its existence from the lost and the dead. And the song the wind sings in its branches is one of misery and regret, of pain and passing. It calls over untilled fields and one-room shacks, across acres of corn and mists of cotton. It calls to the living and the dead, and old ghosts linger in its shade. Now there are lights on the horizon and cars on the road. It is July 17, 1964, and they are coming. They are coming to see the burning man. Virgil Gossard stepped into the parking lot beside Little Tom's Tavern and belched loudly. A cloudless night sky stretched above him, dominated by a yellow killer moon. To the northwest, the tail of the constellation Draco was visible, Ursa Minor below it, Hercules above, but Virgil was not a man to take time to look at the stars, not when he might miss a nickel on the ground in the process, and so the shapes that the stars had taken were lost on him. From the trees and the bushes the last of the field crickets sounded, undisturbed by traffic or people, for this was a quiet stretch of road, with few houses and fewer folk, most having abandoned their homes for more promising surroundings many years before. The cicadas were already gone and soon the woods would prepare for the winter quiet. Virgil would be glad when it came. He didn't like bugs. Earlier that day, a piece of what looked like greenish lint had moved across his hand while he lay in bed and he had felt the brief sting as the masked hunter, scouring Virgil's filthy sheets for bedbugs, bit into him. The thing was dead a second later, but the bite was still itching. That was how Virgil was able to tell the cops what time it was when the men came. He had seen the green numerals on his watch glowing as he scratched at the bug bite: 9:15 P.M. There were only four cars in the lot, four cars for four men. The others were still in the bar, watching a rerun of a classic hockey game on Little Tom's crappy TV, but Virgil Gossard had never been much for hockey. His eyesight wasn't so good and the puck moved too fast for him to follow it. But then everything moved too fast for Virgil Gossard to follow. That was just the way of things. Virgil wasn't too smart, though at least he knew it, which maybe made him smarter than he thought. There were plenty of other fellas thought they were Alfred Einstein or Bob Gates, but not Virgil. Virgil knew he was dumb, so he kept his mouth shut and his eyes open, best he could, and just tried to get by. He felt an ache at his bladder and sighed. He knew he should have gone before he left the bar but Little Tom's bathroom smelled worse than Little Tom himself, and that was saying something, seeing as how Little Tom smelled like he was dying from the inside out, and dying hard. Hell, everybody was dying, inside out, outside in, but most folks took a bath once in a while to keep the flies off. Not Little Tom Rudge, though: if Little Tom tried to take a bath, the water would leave the tub in protest.
Virgil tugged at his groin and shifted uncomfortably from his right foot to his left, then back again. He didn't want to go back inside, but if Little Tom caught him pissing on his lot then Virgil would be going home with Little Tom's boot stuck up his ass and Virgil had enough troubles down there without adding a damn leather enema to his burdens. He could take a leak by the side of the road farther on down the way; but the more he thought about it the more he wanted to go now. He could feel it burning inside of him: if he waited any longer... Well, hell, he wasn't going to wait. He pulled down his zipper, reached inside his pants, and waddled over to the side wall of Little Tom's Tavern just in time to sign his name, which was about as far as Virgil's education extended. He breathed out deeply as the pressure eased and his eyes fluttered closed in a brief ecstasy. Something cold touched him behind his left ear and his eyes quickly opened wide again. He didn't move. His attention was focused on the feel of the metal on his skin, the sound of liquid on wood and stone, and the presence of a large figure behind his back. Then the voice spoke: "I'm warnin' you, cracker: you get one drop of your sorry-ass piss on my shoes and they gonna be fittin' you up for a new skull before they put you in that box." Virgil gulped. "I can't stop it." "I ain't askin' you to stop. I'm ain't askin' you nothin'. I am tellin' you: do not get one drop of your rotgut urine on my shoes." Virgil let out a little sob and tried to move the flow to the right. He'd only had three beers but it seemed like he was peeing out the Mississippi. Please stop, he thought. He glanced a little to his left and saw a black gun held in a black hand. The hand emerged from a black coat sleeve. At the end of the black coat sleeve was a black shoulder, a black lapel, a black shirt, and the edge of a black face. The gun nudged his skull hard, warning him to keep his eyes straight ahead, but Virgil still felt a sudden rush of indignation. It was a nigger with a gun, in the parking lot of Little Tom's Tavern. There weren't too many subjects upon which Virgil Gossard had strong, fully formed opinions, but one of them was niggers with guns. The whole trouble with this country wasn't that there were too many guns, it was that too many of those guns were in the hands of the wrong people, and absolutely and positively the wrong people to be carrying guns were niggers. The way Virgil figured it, white people needed guns to protect themselves from all the niggers with guns while all the niggers had guns to shoot other niggers with and, when the mood took them, white folks too. So the solution was to take away the guns from the niggers and then you'd have fewer white folks with guns because they wouldn't have so much to be scared about, plus there'd be fewer niggers shooting other niggers so there'd be less crime too. It was that simple: niggers were the wrong people to be handing out guns to. Now, near as Virgil could figure it, one of those selfsame wrong people was currently pressing one of those misplaced guns into Virgil's skull, and Virgil didn't like it one little bit. It just proved his point. Niggers shouldn't have guns and --
The gun in question tapped Virgil hard behind the ear and the voice said: "Hey, you know you talkin' out loud, right?" "Shit," said Virgil, and this time he heard himself. The first of the cars turns into the field and pulls up, its headlights shining on the old oak so that its shadow grows and creeps up the slope behind it like dark blood spilling and spreading itself across the land. A man climbs out on the driver's side then walks around the front of the car and opens the door for the woman. They are both in their forties, hard-faced people wearing cheap clothes and shoes that have been mended so often that the original leather is little more than a faded memory glimpsed through patches and stitching. The man takes a straw basket from the trunk, a faded red check napkin carefully tucked in to cover its contents. He hands the basket to the woman, then retrieves a tattered bedsheet from behind the spare tire and spreads it on the ground. The woman sits, tucking her legs in beneath her, and whips away the napkin. Lying in the basket are four pieces of fried chicken, four buttermilk rolls, a tub of coleslaw, and two glass bottles of homemade lemonade, with two plates and two forks tucked in beside them. She removes the plates, dusts them carefully with the napkin, then lays them on the bedsheet. The man eases himself down beside her and removes his hat. It is a warm evening and already the mosquitoes have begun to bite. He slaps at one and examines its remains upon his hand. "Sum'bitch," he says. "You watch your mouth, Esau," says the woman primly, carefully dividing up the food, making sure that her husband gets the breast piece because he is a good, hardworking man despite his language and he needs his food. "Beg pardon," says Esau as she hands him a plate of chicken and coleslaw, shaking her head at the ways of the man she has married. Behind and beside them, more vehicles are pulling up. There are couples, and old folks, and young boys of fifteen and sixteen. Some are driving trucks, their neighbors sitting in back fanning themselves with their hats. Others arrive in big Buick Roadmasters, Dodge Royal hardtops, Ford Mainlines, even a big old Kaiser Manhattan, no car younger than seven or eight years old. They share food, or lean against the hoods of their cars and drink beer from bottles. Handshakes are exchanged and backs are slapped. Soon there are forty cars and trucks, maybe more, in and around Ada's Field, their lights shining on the black oak. There are easily one hundred people gathered, waiting, and more arriving every minute. The opportunities to meet up in this way don't come along so often now. The great years of the Negro barbecue have been and gone, and the old laws are buckling under the pressures imposed from without. There are some folks here who can remember the lynching of Sam Hose down in Newman in 1899, when special excursion trains were laid on so that more than two thousand people from far and wide could come see how the people of Georgia dealt with nigger rapists and killers. It didn't matter none that Sam Hose hadn't raped anyone and that he'd only killed the
planter Cranford in self-defense. His death would serve as an object lesson to the others, and so they castrated him, cut off his fingers and his ears, then skinned his face before applying the oil and the torch. The crowd fought for fragments of his bones and kept them as tokens. Sam Hose, one of five thousand victims of mob lynchings in less than a century: rapists some, or so they said; killers others. And then there were those who just talked big, or made idle threats when they should have known better than to shoot their mouths off. Talk like that risked getting all sorts of folks riled up and causing no end of trouble. That kind of talk had to be stifled before it became a shout, and there was no surer way of quieting a man or a woman than a noose and a torch. Great days, great days. It is about 9:30 P.M. when they hear the sound of the three trucks approaching, and an excited buzz spreads through the crowd. Their heads turn as the headlights scour the field. There are at least six men in each vehicle. The middle truck is a red Ford, and in the bed a black man sits hunched, his hands tied behind his back. He is big, six seven or more, and the muscles in his shoulders and back are hard and bunched like melons in a sack. There is blood on his head and face, and one eye is swollen closed. He is here. The burning man is here. Virgil was certain that he was about to die. His big mouth had just helped him into a heap of trouble, maybe the last trouble he'd ever have to endure. But the good Lord was smiling upon Virgil, even if He wasn't smiling so hard as to make the -- beg pardon, the gunman, go away. Instead, he could feel his breath on his cheek and could smell his aftershave as he spoke. It smelled expensive. "You say that word again and you better enjoy that leak, 'cause it will be the last one you ever take." "Sorry," said Virgil. He tried to force the offending word from his brain, but it came back each time with renewed force. He began to sweat. "Sorry," he said again. "Well, that's all right. You finished down there?" Virgil nodded. "Then put it away. An owl might figure it for a worm and carry it off." Virgil had a vague suspicion that he'd just been insulted, but he quickly tucked his manhood into his fly just in case and wiped his hands on his trousers.
"You carrying a gun?" "Nope." "Bet you wish you were." "Yep," admitted Virgil, in a burst of sudden and possibly ill-advised honesty. He felt hands on him, patting him down, but the gun stayed where it was, pressed hard against his skin. There was more than one of them, Virgil figured. Hell, there could be half of Harlem at his back. He felt a pressure on his wrists as his hands were cuffed tightly behind him. "Now turn to your right." Virgil did as he was told. He was facing out onto the open country behind the bar, all green as far as the river. "You answer my questions, I let you walk away into those fields. Understand?" Virgil nodded dumbly. "Thomas Rudge, Willard Hoag, Clyde Benson. They in there?" Virgil was the kind of guy who instinctively lied about everything, even if there didn't seem to be any percentage in not telling the truth. Better to lie and cover your ass later than tell the truth and find yourself in trouble from the start. Virgil, true to character, shook his head. "You sure?" Virgil nodded and opened his mouth to embellish the lie. Instead, the clicking of the spittle in his mouth coincided perfectly with the impact of his head against the wall as the gun pushed firmly into the base of his skull. "See," whispered the voice, "we goin' in there anyhow. If we go in and they ain't there, then you got nothin' to worry about, least until we come lookin' for you to start askin' you again where they at. But we go in there and they sittin' up at the bar, suckin' on some cold ones, then there are dead folks got a better chance of bein' alive tomorrow than you do. You understand me?" Virgil understood. "They're in there," he confirmed. "How many others?"
"Nobody, just them three." The black man, as Virgil had at last begun to think of him, removed the gun from Virgil's head and patted him on the shoulder with his hand. "Thank you..." he said. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name." "Virgil," said Virgil. "Well, thank you, Virgil," said the man, then brought the butt of the gun down hard on Virgil's skull. "You been great." Beneath the black oak, an old Lincoln has been driven into place. The red truck pulls up beside it and three hooded men climb from the bed, pushing the black man onto the ground before them. He lands on his stomach, his face in the dirt. Strong hands yank him to his feet and he stares into the dark holes of the pillowcases, crudely burnt into the fabric with matches and cigarettes. He can smell cheap liquor. Cheap liquor and gasoline. His name is Errol Rich, although no stone or cross with that name upon it will ever mark his final resting place. From the moment he was taken from his momma's house, his sister and his momma screaming, Errol had ceased to exist. Now all traces of his physical presence are about to be erased from this earth, leaving only the memory of his life with those who have loved him, and the memory of his dying with those gathered here this night. And why is he here? Errol Rich is about to burn for refusing to buckle, for refusing to bend his knee, for disrespecting his betters. Errol Rich is about to die for breaking a window. He was driving his truck, his old truck with its cracked windshield and its flaking paint, when he heard the shout. "Hey, nigger!" Then the glass exploded in on top of him, cutting his face and hands, and something hit him hard between the eyes. He braked suddenly, and smelled it upon himself. In his lap, the cracked pitcher dumped the remains of its contents on his seat and on his pants. Urine. They had filled a pitcher between them and thrown it through his windshield. He wiped the liquid from his face, his sleeve coming away wet and bloody, and looked at the three men standing by the roadside, a few steps away from the entrance to the bar.
"Who threw that?" he asked. Nobody answered, but, secretly, they were afraid. Errol Rich was a strong, powerful man. They had expected him to wipe his face and drive on, not to stop and confront them. "You throw that, Little Tom?" Errol stood before Little Tom Rudge, the owner of the bar, but Little Tom wouldn't meet his eyes. " 'Cause if you did, you better tell me now else I'm gonna burn your shit heap down to the ground." But still there was no reply, so Errol Rich, who always did have a temper on him, signed his death warrant by taking a length of timber from the bed of his truck and turning to the men. They backed off, waiting for him to come at them, but instead he threw the timber, all three feet of it, through the front window of Little Tom Rudge's bar, then climbed back in his truck and drove away. Now Errol Rich is about to die for a pane of cheap glass, and a whole town has come to watch it happen. He looks out on them, these God-fearing people, these sons and daughters of the land, and he feels the heat of their hatred upon him, a foretaste of the burning that is to come. I fixed things, he thinks. I took what was broken and made it good again. The thought seems to have come to him almost out of nowhere. He tries to shake it away, but, instead, it persists. I had a gift. I could take an engine, a radio, even a television, and I could repair it. I never read a manual, never had no formal training. It was a gift, a gift that I had, and soon it will be gone. He looks out at the crowd, at the expectant faces. He sees a boy, fourteen or fifteen, his eyes bright with excitement. He recognizes him, recognizes too the man with his hand on the boy's shoulder. He had brought his radio to Errol, hoping to have it fixed in time for the Santa Anita because he liked to listen to the horse races. And Errol had repaired it, replacing the busted speaker cone, and the man had thanked him and paid him a dollar extra for coming through for him. The man sees Errol looking at him, and his eyes flick away. There will be no help for him, no mercy from any of these people. He is about to die for a broken window, and they will find someone else to repair their engines and their radios, although not as well, and not as cheaply. His legs tied, Errol is forced to hop to the Lincoln. They drag him onto the roof, these masked men, and they put the rope around his neck while he kneels. He sees the tattoo on the arm of the largest man: the word "Kathleen" spelled out on a banner held by angels. The hand tightens the rope. The gasoline is poured over his head, and he shivers. Then Errol looks up and says the last words anyone will ever hear from him on this earth. "Don't burn me," he asks. He has accepted the fact of his death, the inevitability of his passing on this night, but he does not want to burn.
Please Lord, don't let them burn me. The tattooed man splashes the last of the gasoline into Errol Rich's eyes, blinding him, then climbs down to the ground. Errol Rich starts to pray. The small white man entered the bar first. A smell of stale, spilled beer hung in the air. On the floor, dust and cigarette butts formed drifts around the counter, where they had been swept but not cleaned up. There were blackened circles on the wood where soles had stamped out thousands of embers, and the orange paint on the walls had blistered and burst like infected skin. There were no pictures, just generic beer company signs that had been used to cover the worst of the damage. The bar wasn't too big, certainly no more than thirty feet in length and fifteen across. The counter itself was on the left and shaped like the blade of an ice skate, the curved end nearest the door. At its other extreme there was a small office and storage area. The toilets were beyond the bar, beside the back door. Four booths stood against the wall to the right, a pair of round tables to the left. There were two men sitting at the counter, and one other man behind the bar. All three were probably in their sixties. The two at the bar wore baseball caps, faded T-shirts beneath even more faded cotton shirts, and cheap jeans. One of them had a long knife on his belt. The other had a gun concealed beneath his shirt. The man behind the bar looked like he might have been strong and fit once, a long time ago. There was bulk on his shoulders, chest, and arms that was now masked by a thick layer of fat, and his breasts were pendulous as those of an old woman. There were old yellow sweat stains beneath the arms of his white short-sleeved shirt, and his trousers hung low on his hips in a way that might have been fashionable on a sixteen-year-old but was ridiculous on a man fifty years older than that. His hair was yellow white but still thick, and his face was partially obscured by a week's growth of scraggly beard. All three men were watching the hockey game on the old TV above the bar, but their heads turned in unison as the new arrival entered. He was unshaven, wearing dirty sneakers, a loud Hawaiian shirt and creased chinos. He didn't look like he belonged anywhere above Christopher Street, not that anybody in this bar knew where Christopher Street was, exactly. But they knew this man's type, yes they did. They could smell it on him. Didn't matter how unshaven he was, how shabbily he dressed; this boy had "fag" written all over him. "Can I get a beer?" he asked, stepping up to the bar. The bartender didn't make any move for at least a full minute, then took a Bud from the cooler and placed it on the bar.
The small man picked up the beer and looked at it as if seeing a bottle of Bud for the first time. "You got anything else?" "We got Bud Light." "Wow, both kinds." The bartender looked unimpressed. "Two-fifty." This wasn't the kind of place that ran a tab. He counted out three bills from a thick roll, then added another fifty cents in change to bring the tip up to a dollar. The eyes of the three men remained fixed on his slim, delicate hands as he replaced the money in his pocket, then they returned their gazes to the hockey game. The small man took a booth behind the two drinkers, leaned into the corner, then put his feet up and directed his face toward the TV. All four men remained in those positions for about five minutes, until the door again opened softly and another man entered the bar, an unlit Cohiba in his mouth. He was so quiet that nobody even noticed him until he was four feet from the counter, at which point one of the men looked to his left, saw him, and said: "Little Tom, there's a colored in your bar." Little Tom and the second man dragged themselves away from the TV to examine the black man who had now taken a stool at the lower end of the L-shaped bar. "Whiskey, please," he said. Little Tom didn't move. First a fag, now a nigger. This was turning into quite a night. His eyes moved from the man's face to his expensive shirt, his neatly pressed black jeans, and his doublebreasted overcoat. "You from out of town, boy?" "You could say that." He didn't even blink at the second insult in less than thirty seconds. "There's a coon place couple of miles down the road," said Little Tom. "You'll get a drink there." "I like it here." "Well, I don't like you here. Get your ass out, boy, before I start takin' it personal." "So I don't get a drink?" The man sounded unsurprised. "No, you don't. Now you going to leave, or am I gonna have to make you leave?"
To his left, the two men shifted on their stools in preparation for the beating that they hoped to deliver. Instead, the object of their attention reached into his pocket, produced a bottle of whiskey in a brown paper bag, and twisted the cap. Little Tom reached under the counter with his right hand. It emerged holding a Louisville Slugger. "You can't drink that in here, boy," he warned. "Shame," said the black man. "And don't call me 'boy.' The name is Louis." Then he tipped the bottle upside down and watched as its contents flowed along the bar. It made a neat turn at the elbow of the counter, the raised lip preventing the liquid from overflowing onto the floor, and seeped past the three men. They looked at Louis in surprise as he lit his cigar with a brass Zippo. Louis stood and took a long puff on his Cohiba. "Heads up, crackers," he said, and dropped the flaming lighter into the whiskey. The man with the tattoo raps sharply on the roof of the Lincoln. The engine roars and the car bucks once or twice like a steer on a rope before shooting away in a cloud of dirt, dead leaves, and exhaust fumes. Errol Rich seems to hang frozen for a moment in midair before his body uncurls. His long legs descend toward the ground but do not reach it, his feet kicking impotently at the air. A spluttering noise comes from his lips, and his eyes bulge as the rope draws tighter and tighter around his neck. His face becomes congested with blood and he begins to convulse, red drops now speckling his chin and chest. A minute goes by and still Errol struggles. Below him, the tattooed man takes a branch wrapped in linen doused with gasoline, lights it with a match, then steps forward. He holds the torch up so Errol can see it, then touches it to Errol's legs. Errol ignites with a roar, and somehow, despite the constriction at his throat, he screams, a high, ululating thing filled with terrible agony. It is followed by a second, and then the flames enter his mouth and his vocal cords begin to burn. He kicks again and again as the smell of roasting meat fills the air, until at last the kicking stops. The burning man is dead. The bar flared, a small wall of flame shooting up to scorch beards, eyebrows, hair. The man with the gun at his belt leaped back, his left arm covering his eyes while his right reached for his weapon. "Ah-ah," said a voice. A Glock 19 was inches from his face, held firm in the grip of the man in the bright shirt. The other's hand stopped instantly, the gun already uncovered. The small man, whose name was Angel, yanked it from its holster and held it up so that he now had two guns
inches from the barfly's face. Near the door, Louis's hand now contained a SIG, trained on the man with the knife in his belt. Behind the bar, Little Tom was dousing the last of the flames with water. His face was red and he was breathing hard. "The fuck you do that for?" He was looking at the black man, and at the SIG that had now moved to level itself at the center of his chest. A change of expression flickered in Little Tom's face, a brief candle flame of fear that was quickly snuffed out by his natural belligerence. "Why, you got a problem with it?" asked Louis. "I got a problem with it." It was the man with the knife at his belt, brave now that the gun was no longer aimed at him. He had strange, sunken features: a weak chin that lost itself in his thin, stringy neck, blue eyes buried deep in their sockets, and cheekbones that looked like they had been broken and flattened by some old, almost forgotten impact. Those dim eyes regarded the black man impassively while his hands remained raised -- away from his knife, but not too far away. It seemed like a good idea to make him get rid of it. A man who carries a knife like that knows how to use it, and use it fast. One of the two guns now held by Angel made an arc through the air and came to rest on him. "Unclasp your belt," said Louis. The knife man paused for a moment, then did as he was told. "Now pull it out." He grasped it and pulled. The belt caught once or twice before it freed the scabbard and the knife fell to the floor. "That's good enough." "I still got a problem." "Sorry to hear that," Louis replied. "You Willard Hoag?" The sunken eyes betrayed nothing. They remained fixed on the interloper's face, unblinking. "I know you?" "No, you don't know me." Something danced in Willard's eyes. "You niggers all look the same to me anyways." "Guessed you'd take that point of view, Willard. Man behind you is Clyde Benson. And you -- " The SIG lifted slightly in front of the bartender. "You Little Tom Rudge."
The redness in Little Tom's face was due only partly to the heat of the burning liquor. There was fury building in him. It was there in the trembling of his lips, in the way his fingers were clasping and unclasping. The action made the tattoo on his arm move, as if the angels were slowly waving the banner with the name "Kathleen." And all of that anger was directed at the black man now threatening him in his own bar. "You want to tell me what's happening here?" asked Little Tom. Louis smiled. "Atonement, that's what's happening here." It is ten after ten when the woman stands. They call her Grandma Lucy, although she is not yet fifty and still a beautiful woman with youth in her eyes and few lines on her dark skin. At her feet sits a boy, seven or eight years old, but already tall for his age. A radio plays Bessie Smith's "Weeping Willow Blues." The woman called Grandma Lucy wears only a nightdress and shawl, and her feet are bare, yet she rises and walks through the doorway, descending the steps into the yard with careful, measured strides. Behind her walks the little boy, her grandson. He calls to her -- "Grandma Lucy, what's the matter?" -- but she does not reply. Later she will tell him about the worlds within worlds, about the places where the membrane separating the living from the dead is so thin that they can see one another, touch one another. She will tell him of the difference between daywalkers and nightwalkers, of the claims that the dead make upon those left behind. And she will talk of the road that we all walk, and that we all share, the living and the dead alike. But for now she just gathers her shawl closer to her and continues toward the edge of the forest, where she stops and waits in the moonless night. There is a light among the trees, as if a meteor has descended from the heavens and is now traveling close to the ground, flaming and yet not flaming, burning and yet not burning. There is no heat, but something is ablaze at the heart of that light. And when the boy looks into her eyes, he sees the burning man. "You recall Errol Rich?" said Louis. Nobody responded, but a muscle spasmed in Clyde Benson's face. "I said, do you recall Errol Rich?" "We don't know what you're talking about, boy," said Hoag. "You got the wrong men."
The gun swiveled, then bucked in Louis's hand. Willard Hoag's chest spat blood through the hole in his left breast. He stumbled backward, taking a stool with him, then landed heavily on his back. His left hand scrambled at something unseen on the floor, and then he was still. Clyde Benson started to cry, and then it all went down. Little Tom dived to floor of the bar, his hands seeking the shotgun beneath the sink. Clyde Benson kicked a stool at Angel, then ran for the door. He got as far as the men's room before his shirt puffed twice at the shoulder. He stumbled through the back door and disappeared, bleeding, into the darkness. Angel, who had fired the shots, went after him. The crickets had grown suddenly quiet and the silence in the night had a strange anticipatory quality, as though the natural world awaited the inevitable outcome of the events in the bar. Benson, unarmed and bleeding, had almost made it to the edge of the parking lot when the gunman caught up with him. His feet were swept from under him and he landed painfully in the dirt, blood flecking the ground before him. He began to crawl toward the long grass, as if by reaching its cover he might somehow be safe. A boot caught him under the chest, skewering him with white hot pain as he was forced onto his back, his eyes squeezing shut involuntarily. When they opened again, the man in the loud shirt was standing over him and his gun was pointed at Clyde Benson's head. "Don't do this," said Benson. "Please." The younger man's face was impassive. "Please," said Benson. He was sobbing. "I repented of my sins. I found Jesus." The finger tightened on the trigger, and the man named Angel said: "Then you got nothing to worry about." In the darkness of her pupils the burning man stands, the flames shooting from his head and arms, his eyes and mouth. There is no skin, no hair, no clothing. There is only fire shaped like man, and pain shaped like fire. "You poor boy," whispers the woman. "You poor, poor boy." The tears begin to well up in her eyes and fall softly onto her cheeks. The flames start to flicker and waver. The burning man's mouth opens and the lipless gap forms words that only the woman can hear. The fire dies, fading from white to yellow until at last there is only the silhouette of him, black on black, and then there is nothing but the trees and the tears and the feel of the woman's hand upon the boy's own -- "Come, Louis." -- as she guides him back to the house. The burning man is at peace.
Little Tom rose up with the shotgun to find the room empty and a dead man on the floor. He swallowed once, then moved to his left, making for the end of the counter. He got three steps when the wood splintered at the level of his thigh and the bullets ripped through him, shattering his left femur and his right shin. He collapsed and screamed as his wounded legs impacted on the floor, but still managed to empty both barrels through the cheap wood of the bar. It exploded in a shower of shot and splinters and shattering glass. He could smell blood and powder and spilled whiskey. His ears rang as the noise faded, leaving only the sound of dripping liquid and falling timber. And footsteps. He looked to his left to see Louis standing above him. The barrel of the SIG was pointing at Little Tom's chest. He found some spittle in his mouth and swallowed. Blood was fountaining from the ruptured artery in his thigh. He tried to stop it with his hand but it sprayed through his fingers. "Who are you?" asked Little Tom. From outside came the sound of two shots as Clyde Benson died in the dirt. "Last time: you recall a man named Errol Rich?" Little Tom shook his head. "Shit, I don't know..." "You burned him. You ought to know." Louis aimed the SIG at the bridge of the bartender's nose. Little Tom raised his right arm and covered his face. "I remember! I remember! Jesus. Yes, I was there. I saw what they did." "What you did." Little Tom shook his head furiously. "No, you're wrong. I was there, but I didn't hurt him." "You're lying. Don't lie to me, just tell me the truth. They say confession is good for the soul." Louis lowered the gun and fired. The top of Little Tom's right foot disappeared in a blur of leather and blood. He shrieked then as the gun moved toward his left foot, the words erupting from his gut like old bile. "Stop, please. Jesus, it hurts. You're right, we did it. I'm sorry for what we did to him. We were younger then, we didn't know no better. It was a terrible thing we did, I know it was." His eyes pleaded with Louis. His whole face was bathed in sweat, like that of a man melting. "You think a
day don't go by when I don't think about him, about what we did to him? You think I don't live with that guilt every day?" "No," said Louis. "I don't." "Don't do this," said Little Tom. A hand reached out in supplication. "I'll find a way to make up for what I did. Please." "I got a way that you can make up for it," said Louis. And then Little Tom Rudge was dead. In the car they disassembled the guns, wiping every piece down with clean rags. They scattered the remains of the weapons in fields and streams as they drove, but no words were exchanged until they were many miles from the bar. "How do you feel?" asked Louis. "Numb," Angel replied. "Except in my back. My back hurts." "How about Benson?" "He was the wrong man, but I killed him anyway." "They deserved what they got." Angel waved his assurance away as a thing without substance or meaning. "Don't get me wrong. I got no problem with what we just did back there, but killing him didn't make me feel any better, if that's what you're asking. He was the wrong man because when I pulled that trigger, I didn't even see Clyde Benson. I saw the preacher. I saw Faulkner." There was silence for a time. Dark fields went by, the hollow shapes of brokeback houses visible against the horizon. It was Angel who spoke again. "Bird should have killed him when he had the chance." "Maybe." "There's no maybe about it. He should have burned him." "He's not like us. He feels too much, thinks too much."
Angel sighed deeply. "Feeling and thinking ain't the same thing. That old fuck isn't going away. As long as he's alive, he's a threat to all of us." Beside him, Louis nodded silently in the darkness. "And he cut me, and I swore that no one would ever cut me again. No one." After a time, his companion spoke softly to him. "We have to wait." "For what?" "For the right time, the right opportunity." "And if it doesn't come?" "It will come." "Don't give me that," said Angel, before repeating his question. "What if it doesn't come?" Louis reached out and touched his partner's face gently. "Then we will make it ourselves." Shortly after, they drove across the state line into South Carolina just below Allendale, and nobody stopped them. They left behind the semiconscious form of Virgil Gossard and the bodies of Little Tom Rudge, Clyde Benson, and Willard Hoag, the three men who had taunted Errol Rich, who had taken him from his home, and who had hanged him from a tree to die. And out on Ada's Field, at the northern edge where the ground sloped upward, a black oak burned, its leaves curling to brown, the sap hissing and spitting as it burst from the trunk, its branches like the bones of a flaming hand set against the star-sprinkled blackness of the night sky. Copyright © 2003 by John Connolly
Bad Men Prologue ...they are not towers but giants. They stand in the well from the navel down; and stationed round its bank they mount guard on the final pit of Hell. -- Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto 31 Moloch dreams. In the darkness of a Virginia prison cell, he stirs like an old demon goaded by memories of its lost humanity. The dream presses upon him once more, the First Dream, for in it lies his beginning, and his end. In the dream, he is standing on the verge of a dense forest and a smell clings to his clothing, the scent of animal fat and saltwater. There is a weight at his right hand, a musket, its rough leather strap hanging almost to the ground. On his belt there is a knife, and a powder horn, and a bag of shot. The crossing was difficult, for the sea was wild and the waves broke upon them with the force of a great hand. They lost a man on the journey to the island, drowned when one of the bark canoes capsized, and a pair of muskets and a leather bag filled with powder and shot descended with him beneath the waves. They cannot afford to lose weapons. They are hunted men, even as they are become hunters themselves this night. It is the year of our Lord 1693. Moloch, twisting on his bunk three centuries after the time of his dream, drifts between sleeping and wakefulness for an instant before he is drawn back into this world of images once again, slowly submerging, sinking deeper and deeper, like a man drowning in recollection, for the dream is not new, and its coming is by now expected when he lays his head upon the pillow and at last surrenders himself to its hold, his heartbeat loud in his ears, blood pumping. And blood flowing. He is aware, in the brief moment that he breaks the surface of his uneasy rest, that he has killed before, and will kill again. A conflation of reverie and reality occurs, for Moloch has slain in both dream and wakefulness, although now the distinction between the two realms has grown indistinct. This is a dream. This is not a dream. This is. This was. There is sand beneath his feet. Behind him, the canoes have been drawn up onto the shore and there are men around him, awaiting his command to move. They are twelve in total. He raises a hand to them and the whites follow him into the woods, the Indians breaking off and sprinting
ahead of them. One of them glances back at him, and he sees that the native's face is pitted and scarred, one ear missing, a consequence of mutilation at the hands of his own people. Wabanaki. A Wabanaki mercenary, an outcast. The Indian wears his skins with the hair turned inward, in accordance with the demands of the winter season. "Tanto," says the native, speaking the name of the god of ill will. The foul weather, the drowning, perhaps even the fact that he is here in this place, surrounded by hated white men, all are ascribable to the actions of the bad god. The Wabanaki is called Crow by the other men. They do not know his tribal name, although it is said that he was once a great man among his people, the son of a chief, a sagamore, and that he would have become chief himself had he not been exiled by them. Moloch does not reply, and the native follows his fellow scouts into the woods without another word. Later, when he awakes, Moloch will wonder once more at how he knows these things (for the dream has been coming more frequently in recent months, and in ever greater detail). He knows that he does not trust the Indians. There are three of them, the Wabanaki and two Mi'kmaq with a price on their heads back at Fort Anne, vicious men who have pledged themselves to him in return for alcohol and weapons and the promise of rape. They are useful for now, but he feels uneasy around them. They are despised by their own people, and they are intelligent enough to realize that the men to whom they have attached themselves despise them too. In his dream, Moloch decides that they will have to be killed after their work here is done. From the trees ahead comes the sound of a brief scuffle, and moments later the Wabanaki mercenary emerges. There is a boy in his arms, no more than fifteen years of age. He is struggling against his captor's grasp, his cries stifled by the native's large hand. His feet kick impotently at the air. One of the Mi'kmaq follows, holding the boy's musket. He has been apprehended before he can fire off a warning shot. Moloch approaches, and the boy stops kicking as he recognizes the face before him. He shakes his head, and tries to utter words. The native releases his hand from the boy's mouth but keeps a knife pressed to his throat so that he does not cry out. His tongue freed, the boy finds that he has nothing to say, for there is nothing that can be said. No words can prevent what is about to occur. Instead, his breath plumes whitely in the cold night air, as if his essence were already departing his body, his soul fleeing the pain of what his physical being is about to endure. Moloch reaches out and grips the boy's face in his hands. "Robert Littlejohn," he says. "Did they tell you to keep watch for me?" Robert Littlejohn does not respond. Moloch can feel him trembling beneath his hand. He is surprised that they have maintained even this level of vigilance for so long. After all, it has been many months since his enforced departure. It strikes Moloch that they must fear him a great deal.
"Still, they must think themselves safe if they leave only a child to watch the western approaches to Sanctuary." He eases his grip on the boy's skin, and caresses it gently with his fingertips. "You are a brave boy, Robert." He stands and nods at the Indian, and the Wabanaki draws the knife across the boy's throat, gripping him by the hair to pull his head back so that the blade will have easier passage. Moloch steps back to avoid the arterial spray, but continues to stare into the boy's eyes as the life leaves them. In his dream, Moloch is disappointed by the nature of the boy's passing. There is no fear in his eyes, although the boy must surely have been terrified during his last seconds on this earth. Instead, Moloch sees only a promise, unspoken and yet to be fulfilled. When the boy is dead, the Wabanaki carries him to the rocks above the beach and casts him into the sea. His body sinks from view. "We move on," says Moloch. They ascend to the forest, their footfalls carefully placed, avoiding fallen branches that might snap loudly and alert the dogs. It is bitterly cold, and snow begins to fall, driven into their faces by the harsh wind, but Moloch knows this place, even without the scouts to guide him. Ahead of them, a Mi'kmaq raises his hand and the party halts. Of the other natives, there is no sign. Silently, Moloch creeps up to the guide's side. He points straight ahead. Moloch can see nothing for a time, until the tobacco glows briefly red as the sentry takes a long draw. A shadow grows behind him, and the man's body arcs against the hilt of the knife. The pipe falls to the ground, shedding red ash on the dirt and dying with a hiss upon the newly fallen snow. Suddenly the barking begins and one of the settlers' beasts, more wolf than hound, breaks through a patch of scrub and bears down upon a figure to Moloch's left. It leaps, and then there is a gunshot and the dog bucks and twists in midair, dying with a yelp and falling on a patch of stony ground. Now the men are emerging from the cover of the woods and there are voices calling and women shouting and children crying. Moloch raises his musket at a settler who appears as a silhouette in the doorway of one of the cabins, the dying embers of the fire within making him an easy target. It is Alden Stanley, a fisherman like the savior he so adores. Moloch pulls the trigger and Alden Stanley is briefly lost in a cloud of sparks and smoke. When it clears, Moloch glimpses Stanley's feet twitching in the open doorway until finally they grow still. He sees more knives appear, and short-handled axes are drawn as his men move in for close-quarters combat, but there is little fight in these people. They have been caught unawares, convinced of their safety in this remote place, content with only a single sleepy guard and a boy on a rock, and the men are upon them before they even have a chance to load their weapons. The settlers outnumber their attackers by three to one, but that will make no difference to the outcome. Already, they are beaten. Soon, his men will pick their victims from among the surviving women and young girls, before they too are dispatched. Moloch sees one man, Barone, already in pursuit of a little girl of five or six, with pretty blond hair. She is wearing a loose ivory gown; its folds hang like wings from her raised arms. Moloch knows her name. As he watches, Barone catches her by the hair and pulls her to him.
Even in his dream, Moloch feels no urge to intervene. A woman is running, making for the interior, and he moves off in pursuit of her. She is easy to track, her progress noisy, until the stones and roots begin to take their toll on her bare feet, tearing at her soles and heels and slowing her down. He moves ahead of her and cuts into her path, so that she is still looking back toward the slaughter when he emerges from his cover, the pale light filtering through the branches casting his shadow across her features. And when she sees him, her fear increases, but he recognizes the anger there too, and the hatred. "You," she says. "You brought them here." His right hand lashes out, catching her across the face and sending her sprawling on the ground. There is blood on her mouth as she tries to rise. Then he is on top of her, pushing her nightdress up over her thighs and belly. She strikes at him with her fists, but he throws aside his gun and holds her arms over her head with his left hand. His right hand fumbles at his belt, and she hears the sound of steel upon leather as the knife is unsheathed. "I told you I'd return," he whispers. "I told you I'd be back." Then he leans in closer to her, his mouth almost touching her lips. "Know me, wife." In the moonlight the blade flashes, and in his dream Moloch begins his work. So Moloch sleeps, believing that he dreams; and far to the north, on the island of his visions, Sylvie Lauter opens her eyes. It is January, centuries after the events of which Moloch dreams, and the world is skewed. It rests at an angle, as if the physical reality has somehow come to resemble her own perception of it. It has always appeared canted to her, in a way, always off-kilter. She has never quite fit into it. At school, she has found a place with the other outcasts, the ones with the dyed hair and downcast eyes. They give her some sense of belonging, even as they reject the concept of belonging as somehow unsound. None of them belongs. The world will not have them. But now that world is altered. Trees grow diagonally, and a doorway has opened to reveal the night sky. She reaches out to touch it, but her view is obscured by a spider's web. She tries to focus and sees the starburst shatter in the glass. She blinks. There is blood on her fingers, and blood on her face. And then the pain comes. There is a great pressure on her legs, and a terrible ache in her chest. To breathe is to be constricted by nails. She attempts to swallow and tastes copper on her tongue. With her right hand she wipes the blood from her eyes and clears her vision.
The hood of the car is crumpled inward, wrapped around the trunk of the oak tree in a twisted embrace. Her legs are lost amid the wreckage of the dashboard and the workings of the engine. She remembers the moment when the car veered out of control on the slope. The night rewinds for her. The crash itself is a jumble of sights and noises. She recalls feeling strangely calm as the car struck a great shard of sloping concrete, the front lifting as the passenger side of the vehicle left the ground. She remembers branches and green leaves filling the windshield; the dull sound of the impact; a grunt from Wayne that reminded her of the sound he makes when he is puzzled, which is often, or when he climaxes, which is often too. Now rewind again, and she and Wayne are on the edge of the man-made slope, the former site of the old gun emplacements and army bunkers, ready to freewheel down the incline. Now she is breaking into the garage, and watching Wayne steal the car. Now she is on her back upon a mattress, and Wayne is making love to her. He makes love badly, but still he is her Wayne. Wayne. She turns to her left and calls his name, but no sound comes. She again forms the word with her lips, and manages a whisper. "Wayne." Wayne is dead. His eyes are half closed, staring lazily at her. There is blood around his mouth, and the steering column is lost in his chest. "Wayne." She begins to cry. When she opens her eyes, there are lights before her. Help, she thinks. Help is coming. The lights hover around the windshield and the damaged hood. The interior of the car glows with a diffused illumination as one of them passes overhead, and she wonders at how they can move in that way. "Help me," she says. A single light draws closer, nearing the open window to her right, and she can at last see the form behind it. The shape is hunched, and cloaked with leaves and wood and mud and darkness. It smells of damp earth. It lifts its head to her, and in the strange half-light that filters from the lamp in its hand, Sylvie registers gray skin, and dark eyes like oil bubbles, and torn, bloodless lips, and knows that she is soon to join Wayne, that they will travel together into the world beyond this one, and that at last she will find a place where she fits into the great pattern that has remained hidden from her for so long. She is not yet frightened. She simply wants the pain to end. "Please," she says to the dead woman at the windshield, but the woman retreats and Sylvie has a sense that she is afraid, that there is something here that even the dead fear. The other lights also begin to recede and Sylvie extends an imploring hand.
"Don't go," she says. "Don't leave me alone." But she is not alone. A hissing sound comes from close by, and a figure floats beside her at the other side of the glass. It is smaller than the woman, and it holds no light in its hands. Its hair is white in the moonlight, and is so long and bedraggled that it almost entirely covers its face. It moves nearer as Sylvie feels a wave of tiredness wash over her. She hears herself moan. Her mouth opens as she tries to speak, and she no longer has the strength to close it again. The figure at the window presses itself against the car. Its hands, with their small, gray fingers, clutch the top of the glass, trying to force it farther down. Sylvie's vision is dimmed once more, obscured by blood and tears, but she can see that it is a little girl who is trying to enter the car, to join her in her agony. "Honey," Sylvie whispers. Sylvie tries to move and the pain surges through her with the force of a jolt of electricity. It hurts her to turn her head to the right, so she can see the girl only from the corner of her eye. Momentarily, Sylvie's mind clears. If she can feel pain, then she is still alive. If she is alive, then there is hope. All else is just the imaginings of a mind driven to the edge by trauma and distress. The woman with the light was not dead. The child is not floating in the air. Sylvie feels something brush against her cheek. It hovers before her eyes and its wings make a dull clicking noise as it strikes the windows and roof of the car. It is a gray moth. There are others nearby. She senses them on her skin and in her hair. "Honey," she says, haltingly, her hand striking feebly at the insects. "Get help. Go get your mommy or your daddy. Tell them the lady needs help." Her eyes flutter closed. Sylvie is fading now. She is dying. She was mistaken. There is no hope. But the child does not leave. Instead, she leans into the car, forcing her body through the narrow gap between the window and the door, head first, then shoulders. The hissing grows louder. Sylvie feels a coldness at her brow, brushing across her cheeks, coming at last to rest upon her lips. There are more moths now, the sound of them louder and louder in her ears, like a scattering of applause. The child is bringing them. They are somehow a part of her. The coldness against her mouth grows in intensity. Sylvie opens her eyes and the child's face is near her own, her hand stroking Sylvie's forehead. "No -- " And then fingers begin to probe at her lips, pushing against her teeth, and she can feel old skin crumbling like dust against her tongue. Sylvie thinks instinctively of the moths, of how one of
the insects might feel in her mouth. The fingers are deep inside her, touching, probing, gripping, trying desperately to get at the warmth of her, the life within. She struggles against them and tries to scream, but the thin hand muffles her voice. The child's face is close to her own now, but there is still no detail. It is a blur, a painting left out in the rain, the shades running, blending into one another. Only the eyes remain clear, black and hungry, jealous of life. The hand withdraws, and now the child's mouth is against her own, forcing it open with her tongue and teeth, and Sylvie tastes earth and dead leaves and dark, filthy water. She tries to push the child away and feels the old bones beneath the cloak of vegetation and rough, rotted clothing. Now it is as if her last energies are being drawn from her by the phantom child; a dying girl, being preyed upon by a dead girl. A Gray Girl. The child is hungry, so very hungry. Sylvie digs her hands into the child's scalp and her nails rake across her hair and skin. She tries to force her away, but the child is gripping her neck, holding her mouth against her own. She sees other vague shapes crowding behind, their lights gathering, drawn by the intensity of the Gray Girl's hunger, although they do not share her appetites and are still kept back by their fear of her. Then, suddenly, the child's mouth is no longer against hers, and the feel of the bones is gone. The lights are departing, and other lights are replacing them, these harsher than before, shedding true illumination. A man approaches her, and she thinks that she recognizes him from somewhere. He speaks her name: "Sylvie? Sylvie?" She hears sirens approaching. "Stay," she whispers. She takes hold of his arm and draws him to her. "Stay," she repeats. "They'll come back." "Who?" he says. "The dead ones," she says. "The little girl." She tries to spit the taste of the child from her mouth, and dust and blood dribble onto her chin. She begins to shake, and the man tries to hold her and comfort her, but she will not be comforted. "They were dead," she says, "but they had lights. Why do the dead need light?" And the world turns to darkness, and she is finally given the answer that she seeks.
The waves break on the shores of the island. Most of the houses are dark. No cars move on Island Avenue, the community's main street. Later, when morning comes, the postmaster, Larry Amerling, will be at his desk, waiting for the mail boat to bring the first delivery of the day. Sam Tucker will open the Casco Bay Market and lay out the day's baking of doughnuts and croissants and pastries. He will fill the coffee urns and greet by name those who drop in to fill up their travel cups before they take the ferry into Portland. Later, Nancy and Linda Tooker will open up the Dutch Diner for its traditional seven hours of business -- seven until two, seven days a week - and those who can afford a more leisurely approach to life will wander down for breakfast and a little gossip, eating scrambled eggs and bacon as they look out of the windows and onto the little landing where Archie Thorson's ferry arrives and departs with reasonable regularity and slightly less reasonable punctuality. As midday comes, Jeb Burris will transfer his attentions from the Black Duck Motel to the Rudder Bar, although in winter neither business places great demands upon his time. Thursday to Saturday, Good Eats, the island's sole restaurant, opens for dinner, and Dale Zimmer, the chef and owner, will be down at the landing negotiating prices for lobster and fish. Trucks will leave Jaffe Construction, the island's biggest employer (with a total of twenty employees), to deal with Covey Jaffe's current slate of jobs, ranging from house construction to boat repair, Covey being a man who prides himself on the flexibility of his workforce. This being early January, school is still out, so Dutch Island Elementary remains closed, and the older kids will not be taking up space on the ferry to the mainland schools. Instead, some of them will be thinking up new ways to make mischief, new places in which to smoke pot and screw, preferably far from the eyes of their parents or the police. Most will not yet know of the deaths of Wayne Cady and Sylvie Lauter, and when they learn of the accident the next morning, and its impact sinks in, there may be fears of reprisals from the adult community in the form of parental constraints and increased police vigilance. But in the first moments there will be only shock and tears; boys will remember how they lusted after Sylvie Lauter, and girls will recall with something like affection Wayne Cady's adolescent fumblings. Bottles will be raised in secret, and young men and women will make their pilgrimages to the Cady and Lauter houses, standing in embarrassed silence as their elders hug one another in open grief. But for now, the only light that burns on Island Avenue, with the exception of the island's twelve (count 'em) street lamps, can be found in the Dutch Island Municipal Building, home to the fire department, the library, and the police department. A man sits slumped in a chair in the small office that constitutes the home of Dutch Island's police force. His name is Sherman Lockwood, and he is one of the policemen from Portland on permanent roster for island duty. He still has Sylvie Lauter's blood on his hands and his uniform, and glass from the shattered windshield of the car is caught in the treads of his boots. A cup of coffee lies cold before him. He wants to cry, but he will hold it inside until he returns to the mainland, where he will awaken his still-sleeping wife by pressing his face to her skin and holding her tightly as the sobs shudder through him. He has a daughter Sylvie Lauter's age, and his greatest nightmare is that someday he may be forced to look upon her as he looked upon Sylvie this night, the promise that her life held now given the lie by her death. He holds out his hand, and the light from the desk lamp shows up the blood still caught beneath his nails and in the wrinkles of his knuckles. He could go back to the bathroom and try to remove the last traces of her, but the porcelain sink is speckled with red and he thinks that if he looks upon those marks, he will lose control of himself. And so Sherman balls his
hands into fists, eases them into the pockets of his jacket, and tries to stop his body from trembling. Through the window, Sherman can see a great shape silhouetted against the stars. It is the figure of a man, a man perhaps eighteen inches taller than he is, a man immeasurably stronger, and immeasurably sadder, than Sherman. Sherman is not a native of Dutch Island. He was born and raised in Biddeford, a little south of Portland, and he and his wife still live there, along with their two children. The loss of Sylvie Lauter and her boyfriend, Wayne, is terrible and painful to him, but he has not watched them grow as the man beyond the window has. Sherman is not a part of this tightly knit community. He is an outsider, and it will always be this way. And yet the giant too is an outsider. His great bulk, his awkwardness, the memories of too many taunts delivered, too many whispers endured have made him one. He was born here and he will die here without ever truly believing that he belongs. Sherman decides that he will join the giant in a moment. Not just yet, though. Not just yet. The giant's head is slightly raised, as if he can still hear the sound of the Portland Fire Department boat departing, taking the bodies of Sylvie and Wayne back to the mainland for autopsy. In a couple of days' time, the islanders will gather at the main cemetery to watch the coffins as they are lowered silently into the ground. Sylvie and Wayne will be buried close by each other after a joint service out of the island's little Baptist church. Much of the entire winter population will gather, along with media and relatives and friends from the mainland. Five hundred people will walk from the church to the cemetery, and afterward there will be coffee and sandwiches at the American Legion post, with maybe something a little stronger for those who need it most. And the giant will be among the mourners, and he will grieve with them, and he will wonder. For he has been told the girl's last words, and he feels unaccountably afraid. The dead ones. They were dead, but they had lights. Why do the dead need light? But for now the island is quiet once again. It is Dutch Island on the maps, a tiny oval one-and-ahalf-hour's ferry ride from Portland, far out in Casco Bay on the margin of the outer ring of islands. It is Dutch Island to those who have only recently come here to live, for the island has attracted its share of new residents who no longer wish to stay, or can no longer afford to stay, on the mainland. It is Dutch Island to the reporters who will cover the funeral; Dutch Island to the legislators who will determine its future; Dutch Island to the real estate salesmen driving up property prices; and Dutch Island to the summer visitors who come to its shores each year for a day, a week, a month, without ever really understanding its true nature.
But others still speak of it by its old name, the name the first settlers, the people of Moloch's dream, gave to it before they were slaughtered. They called it Sanctuary, and the island is still Sanctuary to Larry Amerling, and Sam Tucker, and old Thorson, and a handful of others, but usually only when they speak of it among themselves; and they say its name with a kind of reverence, and perhaps just a hint of fear. It is Sanctuary to the giant too, for his father told him of its history, just as his father told it to him, and similarly back and back again, far into the lost generations of the giant's family. Few outsiders know this, but the giant owns whole sections of the island, bought by his family when nobody wanted to own this land, when even the state was turning down the opportunity to buy islands in Casco Bay. Their stewardship of the land is one of the reasons the island remains unspoiled, and why its heritage is so diligently protected, its memories so carefully stored. The giant knows that the island is special and so he calls it Sanctuary, like all those who recognize their duty toward this place. And perhaps it is still Sanctuary also to the young boy who stands amid the breaking waves at Pine Cove, staring out to sea. He does not appear to heed the cold, and the force of the waves does not make him rock back on his heels when they break, nor threaten to suck his feet from their anchorage beneath the surface. His clothes are rough cotton, apart from the heavy cowhide jacket that his mother made for him, hand-stitching it by the fire while he watched patiently, day after day. The boy's face is very pale, and his eyes are dark and empty. He feels as though he has awakened from a long sleep. He brushes his fingers gently against the bruises on his face, where the grip of the man left its imprint upon him, then touches the memory of the wound on his throat left by the passage of the knife. His fingertips are heavily grooved, as if by time spent in the water. For the boy, as for the island, there is no past; there is only the eternal present. He looks behind him, and sees movement in the forest, the shapes drifting among the trees. Their wait is almost over, just as his unspoken promise is about to be fulfilled. He turns back to the sea and resumes his unblinking watch upon the waiting world beyond. Copyright © 2004 by John Connolly
The Black Angel Chapter One The woman stepped carefully from the Greyhound bus, her right hand holding firmly on to the bar as she eased herself down. A relieved sigh escaped from her lips once both feet were on level ground, the relief that she always felt when a simple task was negotiated without incident. She was not old -- she was barely into her fifties -- but she looked, and felt, much older. She had endured a great deal, and accumulated sorrows had intensified the predations of the years. Her hair was silver-gray, and she had long since ceased making the monthly trek to the salon to have its color altered. There were horizontal lines stretching from the corner of each eye, like healed wounds, paralleled by similar lines on her forehead. She knew how she had come by them, for occasionally she caught herself wincing as if in pain while she looked in the mirror or saw herself reflected in the window of a store, and the depth of those lines increased with the transformation in her expression. It was always the same thoughts, the same memories, that caused the change, and always the same faces that she recalled: the boy, now a man; her daughter, as she once was and as she now might be; and the one who had made her little girl upon her, his face sometimes contorted, as it was at the moment of her daughter's conception, and at other times tattered and destroyed, as it was before they closed the coffin lid upon him, erasing at last his physical presence from the world. Nothing, she had come to realize, will age a woman faster than a troubled child. In recent years, she had become prone to the kind of accidents that bedeviled the lives of women two or three decades older than she, and took longer to recover from them than once she had. It was the little things that she had to look out for: unanticipated curbs, neglected cracks in the sidewalk, the unexpected jolting of a bus as she rose from her seat, the forgotten water spilled upon the kitchen floor. She feared these things more than she feared the young men who congregated in the parking lot of the strip mall near her home, watching for the vulnerable, for those whom they considered easy prey. She knew that she would never be one of their victims, as they were more afraid of her than they were of the police, or of their more vicious peers, for they knew of the man who waited in the shadows of her life. A small part of her hated the fact that they feared her, even as she enjoyed the protection that it brought. Her protection was hard bought, purchased, she believed, with the loss of a soul. She prayed for him, sometimes. While the others wailed "Hallelujah" to the preacher, beating their breasts and shaking their heads, she remained silent, her chin to her chest, and pleaded softly. In the past, a long time ago, she would ask the Lord that her nephew might turn again to His radiant light and embrace the salvation that lay only in relinquishing violent ways. Now she no longer wished for miracles. Instead, as she thought about him, she begged God that, when this lost sheep at last stood before Him for the final judgment, He would be merciful and forgive him his trespasses; that He would look closely at the life he had lived and find within it those little acts of decency that might enable Him to offer succor to this sinner. But perhaps there were some lives that could never be redeemed, and some sins so terrible that they were beyond forgiveness. The preacher said that the Lord forgives all, but only if the sinner
truly acknowledges his fault and seeks another path. If this was true, then she feared that her prayers would count for nothing, and he was damned to eternity. She showed her ticket to the man unloading the baggage from the bus. He was gruff and unfriendly to her, but he appeared to be that way to everyone. Young men and women hovered watchfully at the periphery of the light from the bus's windows, like wild animals fearful of the fire yet hungry for those who lay within the circle of its warmth. Her handbag gripped to her chest, she took her case by its handle and wheeled it toward the escalator. She watched those around her, heedful of the warnings of her neighbors back home. Don't accept no offers of help. Don't be talking to nobody seems like he just offerin' to assist a lady with her bag, don't matter how well he dressed or how sweetly he sings.... But there were no offers of help, and she ascended without incident to the busy streets of this alien city, as foreign to her as Cairo or Rome might have been, dirty and crowded and unforgiving. She had scribbled an address on a piece of paper, along with the directions she had painstakingly transcribed over the phone from the man at the hotel, hearing the impatience in his voice as he was forced to repeat the address, the name of the hotel near incomprehensible to her when spoken in his thick immigrant accent. She walked the streets, pulling her bag behind her. She carefully noted the numbers at the intersections, trying to take as few turns as possible, until she came to the big police building. There she waited for another hour, until at last a policeman came to talk to her. He had a thin file in front of him, but she could add nothing to what she had told him over the phone, and he could tell her only that they were doing what they could. Still, she filled out more papers, in the hope that some small detail she provided might lead them to her daughter, then left and hailed a cab on the street. She passed the piece of paper with the address of her hotel through a small hole in the Plexiglas screen. She asked the driver how much it would cost to go there, and he shrugged. He was an Asian man, and he did not look pleased to see the scribbled destination. "Traffic. Who knows?" He waved a hand at the slow-moving streams of cars and trucks and buses. Horns honked loudly, and drivers shouted angrily at one another. All was impatience and frustration, overshadowed by buildings that were too high, out of scale with those who were expected to live and work inside and outside them. She could not understand how anyone would choose to remain in such a place. "Twenty, maybe," said the cabdriver. She hoped it would be less than twenty. Twenty dollars was a lot, and she did not know how long she would have to stay here. She had booked the hotel room for three days, and had sufficient funds to cover another three days after that, as long as she ate cheaply and could master the intricacies of the subway. She had read about it, but had never seen it in reality and had no concept of its operations. She knew only that she did not like the thought of descending beneath the earth, into the darkness, but she could not afford to take cabs all the time. Buses
might be better. At least they stayed above ground, slowly though they seemed to move in this city. He might offer her money, of course, once she found him, but she would refuse any such offer, just as she had always refused it, carefully returning the checks that he sent to the only contact address that she had for him. His money was tainted, just as he was tainted, but she needed his help now: not his money, but his knowledge. Something terrible had happened to her daughter, of that she was certain, even if she could not explain how she knew. Alice, oh Alice, why did you have to come to this place? Her own mother had been blessed, or cursed, with the gift. She knew when someone was suffering, and could sense when harm had come to anyone who was dear to her. The dead talked to her. They told her things. Her life was filled with whispers. The gift had not been passed on, and for that the woman was grateful, but she wondered sometimes if a faint trace of it had not found its way into her, a mere spark of the great power that had dwelt in her mother. Or perhaps all mothers were cursed with the ability to sense their children's deepest sufferings, even when they were far, far from them. All that she could say for sure was that she had not known a moment's peace in recent days, and that she heard her daughter's voice calling to her when sleep fleetingly came. She would tell that to him when she met him, in the hope that he would understand. Even if he did not, she knew that he would help, for the girl was blood to him. And if there is one thing that he understood, it was blood. I parked in an alleyway about fifty feet from the house, then covered the rest of the distance on foot. I could see Jackie Garner hunched behind the wall bordering the property. He wore a black wool hat, a black jacket, and black jeans. His hands were uncovered, and his breath formed phantoms in the air. Beneath his jacket I made out the word sylvia written on his T-shirt. "New girlfriend?" I said. Jackie pulled open his jacket so I could see the T-shirt more clearly. It read, tim 'the maine-iac' sylvia, a reference to one of our local-boys-made-good, and featured a poor caricature of the great man himself. In September 2002, Tim Sylvia, all six-eight and 260 pounds of him, became the first Mainer to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, eventually going on to take the Heavyweight Championship title in Las Vegas in 2003, knocking down the undefeated champion, Ricco Rodriguez, with a right cross in the first round. "I hit him hahd," Sylvia told a postmatch interviewer, making every Down-Easter with flattened vowel sounds feel instantly proud. Unfortunately, Sylvia tested positive for anabolic steroids after his first defense, against the six-eleven Gan "The Giant" McGee, and voluntarily surrendered his belt and title. I remembered Jackie telling me once that he'd attended the fight. Some of McGee's blood had landed on his jeans, and he now saved them for special wear.
"Nice," I said. "I got a friend who makes them. I can let you have some cheap." "I wouldn't take them any other way. In fact, I wouldn't take them at all." Jackie was offended. For a guy who might have passed for Tim Sylvia's out-of-condition older brother, he was pretty sensitive. "How many are there in the house?" I asked, but his attention had already wandered onto another subject. "Hey, we're dressed the same," he said. "What?" "We're dressed the same. Look: you got the hat, the same jacket, the jeans. Except you got gloves and I got this T-shirt, we could be twins." Jackie Garner was a good guy, but I thought that he might be a little crazy. Someone once told me that a shell accidentally went off close to him when he was serving with the U.S. Army in Berlin just before the Wall came down. He was unconscious for a week, and for six months after he awoke he couldn't remember anything that happened later than 1983. Even though he was mostly recovered, there were still gaps in his memory, and he occasionally confused the guys at Bull Moose Music by asking for "new" CDs that were actually fifteen years old. The army pensioned him off, and since then he had become a body for hire. He knew about guns and surveillance, and he was strong. I'd seen him put down three guys in a bar fight, but that shell had definitely rattled something loose inside Jackie Garner's head. Sometimes he was almost childlike. Like now. "Jackie, this isn't a dance. It doesn't matter that we're dressed the same." He shrugged and looked away. I could tell he was hurt again. "I just thought it was funny, that's all," he said, all feigned indifference. "Yeah, next time I'll call you first, ask you to help me pick out my wardrobe. Come on, Jackie, it's freezing. Let's get this over with." "It's your call," he said, and it was. I didn't usually take on bail skips. The smarter ones tended to head out of state, making for Canada or points south. Like most PIs, I had contacts at the banks and the phone companies, but I still didn't much care for the idea of tracking some lowlife over half the country in return for a
percentage of his bond, waiting for him to give himself away by accessing an automated teller or using his credit card to check into a motel. This one was different. His name was David Torrans, and he had tried to steal my car to make his getaway from an attempted robbery at a gas station on Congress. My Mustang was parked in the lot beside the station, and Torrans had wrecked the ignition in a doomed effort to get it started after someone boxed in his own Chevy. The cops caught him two blocks away as he made his getaway on foot. Torrans had a string of minor convictions, but with the help of a quick-mouthed lawyer and a drowsy judge he made bail, although the judge, to his small credit, did set bail at twenty thousand dollars to ensure Torrans made it to trial, and ordered him to report daily to police headquarters in Portland. A bondsman named Lester Peets provided the coverage for the bond, then Torrans skipped out on him. The reason for the skip was that a woman who had taken a knock on the head from Torrans during the attempted robbery had subsequently lapsed into a coma in some kind of delayed reaction to the blow she had received, and now Torrans was facing some heavy felony charges, and maybe even life in jail if the woman died. Peets was about to go in the hole for the twenty if Torrans didn't show, as well as sullying his good name and seriously irritating local law enforcement. I took on the Torrans skip because I was aware of something about him that nobody else seemed to know: he was seeing a woman named Olivia Morales, who worked as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant in town and had a jealous ex-husband with a fuse so short he made old nitrol look stable. I had spotted her with Torrans after she finished her shift, two or three days before the robbery went down. Torrans was a "face" in the way that such men sometimes were in small cities like Portland. He had a reputation for violence, but until the robbery bust he had never actually been charged with a serious crime, more through good fortune than any great intelligence on his part. He was the kind of guy to whom other lowlifes deferred on the grounds that he had "smarts," but I had never subscribed to the theory of comparative intelligence where petty criminals were concerned, so the fact that Torrans's peers considered him a sharp operator didn't impress me much. Most criminals are kind of dumb, which is why they're criminals. If they weren't criminals, they'd be doing something else to screw up people's lives, like running elections in Florida. The fact that Torrans had tried to hold up a gas station armed with only a pool ball in a sock indicated that he wasn't about to step up to the majors just yet. I'd heard rumors that he'd developed a taste for smack and OxyContin in recent months, and nothing will scramble a man's intelligence faster than the old "hillbilly heroin." I figured that Torrans would get in touch with his girlfriend when he found himself in trouble. Men on the run tend to turn to the women who love them, whether mothers, wives, or girlfriends. If they have money, they'll then try to put some ground between themselves and those who are looking for them. Unfortunately, the kind of people who went to Lester Peets for their bond tended to be pretty desperate, and Torrans had probably used all of his available funds just rustling up his share of the money. For the moment, Torrans would be forced to stick close to home, keeping a low profile until another option presented itself. Olivia Morales seemed like the best bet. Jackie Garner had good local knowledge, and I brought him in to stay close to Olivia Morales while I was taking care of other business. He watched her buying her food for the week, and
noticed her including a carton of Luckys in her buy, even though she didn't appear to smoke. He followed her home to her rented house in Deering, and saw two men arrive a little later in a red Dodge van. When he described them to me over the phone, I recognized one as Torrans's half brother Garry, which was how, less than forty-eight hours after David Torrans had first gone off the radar, we found ourselves hunched behind a garden wall, about to make a decision on how best to deal with him. "We could call the cops," said Jackie, more for form's sake than anything else. I thought of Lester Peets. He was the kind of guy who got beaten up by his imaginary friends as a child for cheating at games. If he could wheedle his way out of paying me my share of the bond, he would, which meant that I'd end up paying Jackie out of my own pocket. Calling the cops would give Lester just the excuse that he needed. Anyway, I wanted Torrans. Frankly, I didn't like him, and he'd screwed around with my car, but I was also forced to admit that I was anticipating the surge of adrenaline that taking him down would bring. I had been leading a quiet life these past few weeks. It was time for a little excitement. "No, we need to do this ourselves," I said. "You figure they have guns?" "I don't know. Torrans has never used one in the past. He's small-time. His brother has no jacket, so he's an unknown quantity. As for the other guy, he could be Machine Gun Kelly, and we wouldn't find out until we hit the door." Jackie considered our situation for a time. "Wait here," he said, then scuttled away. I heard the trunk of his car opening somewhere in the gloom. When he returned, he was clutching four cylinders, each about a foot in length and with the curved hook of a coat hanger attached to one end. "What are they?" I asked. He held up the two cylinders in his right hand -- "Smoke grenades" -- then the two in his left -"and tear gas. Ten parts glycerine to two parts sodium bisulfate. The smokes have ammonia added. They stink bad. All home made." I looked at the coat hanger, the mismatched tape, the scuffed pipes. "Wow, and they seem so well put together. Who'd have thought?" Jackie's brow furrowed, and he considered the cylinders. He lifted his right hand. "Or maybe these are gas, and these are smoke. The trunk's a mess, so they've been rolling around some." I looked at him. "Your mom must be so proud of you." "Hey, she's never wanted for anything."
"Least of all munitions." "So which should we use?" Calling on Jackie Garner was looking less and less like a good idea, but the prospect of not having to hang around in the dark waiting for Torrans to show his face, or trying to gain access to the house and facing down three men and one woman, possibly armed, was certainly attractive. "Smoke," I said at last. "I think gassing them may be illegal." "I think smoking them is illegal too," Jackie pointed out. "Okay, but it's probably less illegal than gas. Just give me one of those things." He handed a cylinder over. "You sure this is smoke?" I asked. "Yeah, they weigh different. I was just kidding you. Pull the pin, then toss it as fast as you can. Oh, and don't jiggle it around too much. It's kind of volatile." Far from Portland, as her mother made her way through the streets of an unfamiliar city, Alice emerged from a deep sleep. She felt feverish and nauseous, and her limbs and joints ached. She had begged, again and again, for a little stuff just to keep her steady, but instead they had injected her with something that gave her terrible, frightening hallucinations in which inhuman creatures crowded around her, trying to carry her off into the darkness. They didn't last long, but their effect was draining, and after the third or fourth dose she found that the hallucinations continued even after the drug should have worn off, so that the line between nightmare and reality became blurred. In the end, she pleaded with them to stop, and in return she told them all that she knew. After that, they changed the drug, and she slept dreamlessly. Since then, the hours had passed in a blur of needles and drugs and periodic sleep. Her hands had been tied to the frame of the bed, and her eyes had remained covered ever since she was brought to this place, wherever it was. She knew that there was more than one person responsible for keeping her here, for different voices had questioned her over the period of her captivity. A door opened, and footsteps approached the bed. "How are you feeling?" asked a male voice. It was one that she had heard before. It sounded almost tender. From his accent, she guessed that he was Mexican. Alice tried to speak, but her throat was so terribly dry. A cup was placed to her lips, and the visitor trickled water into her mouth, supporting the back of her head with his hand so that she did not spill any upon herself. His hand felt very cool against her scalp.
"I'm sick," she said. The drugs had taken away some of the hunger, but her own addictions still gnawed at her. "Yes, but soon you will not be so sick." "Why are you doing this to me? Did he pay you to do this?" Alice sensed puzzlement, maybe even alarm. "Who do you mean?" "My cousin. Did he pay you to take me away, to clean me up?" A breath was released. "No." "But why am I here? What do you want me to do?" She remembered again being asked questions, but she had trouble recalling their substance or the answers that she gave in reply. She feared, though, that she had said something bad, something that would get a friend into trouble, but she couldn't recall her friend's name, or even her face. She was so confused, so tired, so thirsty, so hungry. The cool hand passed across her brow, brushing the damp hair from her skin, and she almost wept in gratitude for this brief moment of solicitude. Then the hand touched her cheek, and she felt fingers exploring the ridges of her eye sockets, testing her jaw, pressing into her bones. Alice was reminded of the actions of a surgeon, examining the patient before the cutting began, and she was afraid. "You have nothing more to do," he said. "It's nearly over now." As the taxi neared its destination, the woman understood the reasons for the driver's unhappiness. They had progressed uptown, the area growing less and less hospitable, until at last even the streetlights grew dark, their bulbs shot out and glass scattered on the sidewalk beneath. Some of the buildings looked like they might have been beautiful once, and it pained her to see them reduced to such squalor, almost as much as it hurt her to see young people reduced to living in such conditions, prowling the streets and preying on their own. The taxi pulled up in front of a narrow doorway marked with the name of a hotel, and she paid the driver twenty-two dollars. If he was expecting a tip, he was now a disappointed man. She didn't have money to be giving people tips just for doing what they were supposed to do, but she did thank him. He didn't help her to get her bag from the trunk. He just popped it and let her do it herself, all the time looking uneasily at the young men who watched him from the street corners.
The hotel's sign promised TV, AC, and baths. A black clerk in a D12 T-shirt sat behind a Plexiglas screen inside, reading a college textbook. He handed her a registration card, took her cash for three nights, then gave her a key attached to half a brick by a length of thick chain. "Got to leave the key with me when you go out," he told her. The woman looked at the brick. "Sure," she said. "I'll try to remember." "You're on the fourth floor. Elevator's on the left." The elevator smelled of fried food and human waste. The odor in her room was only marginally better. There were scorch marks on the thin carpet, big circular black burns that could not have come from cigarettes. A single iron bed stood against one wall, with a space between it and the other wall just large enough for a person to squeeze through. A radiator sulked coldly beneath a grimy window, a single battered chair beside it. There was a sink on the wall, and a tiny mirror above it. A TV was bolted to the upper right-hand corner of the room. She opened what appeared to be a closet and discovered instead a small toilet and a hole in the center of the floor to allow water from a showerhead to drain away. In total, the bathroom was about nine feet square. As far as she could see, the only way to shower was to sit on the toilet, or to straddle it. She set out her clothes on the bed and placed her toothbrush and toiletries by the sink. She checked her watch. It was a little early. All that she knew about where she was going she had learned from a single cable TV show, but she guessed that things didn't start to get busy there until after dark. She turned on the TV, lay on her bed, and watched game shows and comedies until the night drew in. Then she pulled on her overcoat, put some money in her pocket, and descended to the streets. Two men came to Alice and injected her again. Within minutes her head began to cloud. Her limbs felt heavy, and her head lolled to the right. Her blindfold was removed, and she knew that it was coming to an end. Once her vision had recovered, she could see that one of the men was small and wiry, with a pointed gray beard and thinning gray hair. His skin was tanned, and she guessed that this was the Mexican who had spoken to her in the past. The other was an enormously fat man with a belly that wobbled pendulously between his thighs, obscuring his groin. His green eyes were lost in folds of flesh, and there was dirt lodged in the pores of his skin. His neck was purple and swollen, and when he touched her, her skin prickled and burned. They lifted her from her bed and placed her in a wheelchair, then wheeled her down a decaying hallway until she was brought at last to a white-tiled room with a drain in the floor. They transferred her to a wooden chair with leather straps to secure her hands and feet, and there they left her, facing her reflection in the long mirror on the wall. She barely recognized herself. A gray pallor hung behind her dark skin, as though her own features had been thinly overlaid on
those of a white person. Her eyes were bloodshot, and there was dried blood at the corners of her mouth and upon her chin. She was wearing a white surgical gown, beneath which she was naked. The room was startlingly clean and bright, and the fluorescent lights above were merciless in their exposition of her features, worn down by years of drugs and the demands of men. For a second, she believed that she was looking at her mother in the glass, and the resemblance made her eyes water. "I'm sorry, Momma," she said. "I didn't mean no harm by it." Her hearing became acute, a consequence of the drugs pumping through her system. Before her, her features began to swim, mutating, transforming. There were voices whispering around her. She tried to turn her head to follow them, but was unable to do so. Her paranoia grew. Then the lights died, and she was in total darkness. The woman hailed a cab and told the driver where she wished to be taken. She had briefly considered using public transportation, but had made the decision that she would use it only during daylight hours. By night she would travel by taxi, despite the expense. After all, if something were to happen to her on the subway or while waiting for a bus before she spoke to him, then who would look for her daughter? The cabdriver was a young man, and white. Most of the others were not white, from what she had seen earlier that evening. Few were even black. The races that drove the cabs here could be found only in big cities and foreign lands. "Ma'am," the young man said, "are you sure that's where you want to go?" "Yes," she said. "Take me to the Point." "That's a rough area. You going to be long? You're not going to be long and I can wait for you, take you back here." She didn't look like any hooker that he had ever seen, although he knew that the Point catered to all tastes. The cabdriver didn't like to think about what might happen to a nice gray-haired lady moving among the bottom dwellers of the Point. "I will be some time," she said. "I don't know when I'll be coming back, but thank you for asking." Feeling that he could do nothing more, the driver pulled into traffic and headed for Hunt's Point. He called himself G-Mack, and he was a playa. He dressed like a playa, because that was part of what being a playa was all about. He had the gold chains and the leather coat, beneath which he
wore a tailored black vest over his bare upper body. His pants were cut wide at the thigh, narrowing down to cuffs so small he had trouble getting his feet through them. His cornrows were hidden beneath a wide-brimmed leather hat, and he kept a pair of cell phones on his belt. He carried no weapons, but there were guns close to hand. This was his patch, and these were his women. He watched them now, their asses barely hidden beneath short black imitation-leather skirts, their titties busting out of their cheap bustier tops. He liked his women to dress alike, felt like it was kind of his brand, m'sayin? Anything worthwhile in this country had its own recognizable look, didn't matter you was buying it in Buttfreeze, Montana, or Asswipe, Arkansas. G-Mack didn't have as many girls as some, but then he was just beginning. He had big plans. He watched Chantal, this tall black hooker with legs so thin he marveled at how they could support her body, teeter on her heels as she headed over to him. "Whatchu got, baby?" he asked. "Hunnerd." "Hunnerd? You fuckin with me?" "It's slow, baby. I ain't had but some blow jobs, and a nigga try to stiff me in the lot, makin like he goan pay me soon as I'm done, wastin my time. It's hard, baby." G-Mack reached out for her face and held it tightly in his fingers. "What'm I goan find and I take you down that alleyway and check you out, huh? I ain't goan find no hunnerd, am I? I goan find bills hidden in all them dark places, ain't I? You think I'm goan be gentle with you, huh, when I go lookin inside? You want me to do that?" She shook her head in his grip. He released her, and watched as she reached under her skirt. Seconds later, her hand emerged with a plastic Baggie. He could see the notes inside. "I'm goan let you get away with it this once, y'hear?" he said as he took the Baggie from her, holding it carefully with his fingernails so as not to sully his hands with the smell of her. She gave him the hundred from her handbag too. He raised his hand as if to strike her, then let it drop slowly to his side and smiled his best, most reassuring smile. "That's just cause you new with me. But you fuck with me again, bitch, and I will fuck your shit up so bad you be bleeding for a week. Now get yo ass back out there." Chantal nodded and sniffed. She stroked his coat with her right hand, rubbing at the lapel. "Sorry, baby. I just -- " "It's done," said G-Mack. "We clear."
She nodded again, then turned away and headed back onto the street. G-Mack watched her go. She had maybe another five hours before things got quieter. He'd take her back to the crib then and show her what happened to bitches who fucked with the Mack, who tried to embarrass him by holding back on him. He wasn't about to discipline her on the street, because that would make him look bad. No, he'd deal with her in private. That was the thing with these hos. You let one get away with something, and the next thing they were all holding out on you and then you weren't nothing better than a bitch yourself. They needed to be taught that lesson early on, else they weren't worth having around. Funny thing was, you fucked them up, and they still stayed with you. You worked it right, and they felt needed, like they was part of a family they'd never had. Like a good father, you disciplined them because you loved them. You could screw around on the ones who were sweet on you, and they wouldn't say boo, because at least they knew the other whores you were seeing. In that sense, a pimp beat a square any day. It was all okay as long as you kept it in the family. They were your women, and you could do with them what you pleased once you gave them a sense of belonging, of being wanted. You had to get psychological with these bitches, had to know how to play the game. "Excuse me," said a voice to his right. He looked down to see a small black woman in an overcoat, her hand inside her bag. Her hair was gray, and she looked like she might break in two if the wind was strong enough. "What you want, Grandma?" he said. "You a little old to be trickin." If the woman understood the insult, she didn't let it show. "I'm looking for somebody," she said, taking a photograph from her wallet, and G-Mack felt his heart sink. The door to Alice's left opened, then closed again, but the lights in the corridor beyond had also been extinguished, and she was unable to see who had entered. A stench assailed her nostrils, and she found herself retching. She could hear no footsteps, yet she was aware of a figure circling her, appraising her. "Please," she said, and it took all of her strength just to speak. "Please. Whatever I done, I'm sorry for it. I won't tell nobody what happened. I don't even know where I am. Let me go, and I'll be a good girl, I promise." The whispering grew louder now, and there was laughter intermingled with the voices. Then something touched her face, and her skin prickled, and her mind was bombarded with images. She felt as though her memories were being ransacked, the details of her life briefly held up to the light, then discarded by the presence beside her. She saw her mother, her aunt, her grandmother...
A houseful of women, set on a patch of land by the edge of a forest; a dead man lying in a casket, the women standing around him, none of them weeping. One of them reaches for the cotton sheet covering his head, and when it is removed he is revealed to be near faceless, his features destroyed by some terrible vengeance wrought upon him by another. In a corner stands a boy, tall for his age, dressed in a cheap hired suit, and she knows his name. Louis. "Louis," she whispered, and her voice seemed to echo around the tiled room. The presence beside her withdrew, but she could still hear its breathing. Its breath smelt of earth. Earth, and burning. "Louis," she repeated. Closer than brother to me. Blood to me. Help me. Her hand was clasped in the hand of another, and she felt it being raised. It came to rest upon something ragged and ruined. She traced the lineaments of what once was a face: the eye sockets, now empty; the fragments of cartilage where once was a nose; a lipless gap for a mouth. The mouth opened, taking her fingers inside, then closed softly upon them, and she saw once again the figure in the casket, the man without a face, his head torn apart by the actions of -"Louis." She was crying now, crying for them both. The mouth upon her fingers was no longer soft. Teeth were erupting from the gums, flat yet sharp, and they tore into her hand. This is not real. This is not real. But the pain was real, and the presence was real. And she called his name in her head once again -- Louis -- as she began to die. G-Mack kept his face turned from her, taking in his women, the cars, the streets, anything to divert his attention and force her to go elsewhere. "Can't help you," he said. "Go call Five-O. They be dealin with missin persons." "She worked here," said the woman. "The girl I'm looking for. She worked for you."
"Like I said, can't help you. You need to be movin on now, else you goan get into trouble. Nobody want to be answering yo questions. People here want to make money. This is a business. This like Mickey D's. It's all about the dollar." "I can pay you," said the old woman. She raised a pathetic handful of ragged bills. "I don't want yo money," he said. "Get out of my face." "Please," she said. "Just look at this picture." She held up the picture of the young black woman. G-Mack glanced at the photograph, then tried to look away as casually as he could, the sick feeling in his stomach growing suddenly stronger. "Don't know her," said G-Mack. "Maybe -- " "I said I ain't never seen her." "But you didn't even look prop -- " And in his fear, G-Mack made his biggest mistake. He lashed out at her, catching her on the left cheek. She staggered back against the wall, a pale spot against her skin where his open hand had struck her. "Get the fuck out of here," he said. "Don't you be comin round here no more." The woman swallowed, and he could see the tears starting, but she tried to hold them back. Old bitch had some balls, he'd give her that. She replaced the photograph in her bag, then walked away. Across the street, G-Mack could see Chantal staring at him. "The fuck you lookin' at?" he shouted to her. He made a move toward her, and she backed away, her body eventually obscured by a green Taurus that pulled up alongside her, the middle-aged business type inside easing down the window as he negotiated with her. When they'd agreed on a price, Chantal climbed in alongside him, and they pulled off, headed for one of the lots off the main drag. That was another thing he'd have to talk about with the bitch: curiosity. Jackie Garner was at one side of the window, and I was at the other. Using a little dentist's mirror I'd picked up, I'd seen two men watching TV in the living room. One of them was Torrans's brother, Garry. The drapes on what I took to be a bedroom nearby were drawn, and I thought I could hear a man and a woman talking inside. I signaled to Jackie that he should stay where he
was, then I moved to the bedroom window. Using the raised fingers of my right hand, I counted three, two, one, then hurled the smoke canister through the window of the room. Jackie tossed his through the glass of the living room, then followed it with a second. Instantly, noxious green fumes began to pour from the holes. We backed away, taking up positions in the shadows across from the front and back doors to the house. I could hear coughing and shouting inside, but I could see nothing. Already, the smoke had entirely filled the living room. The stench was incredible, and even at a distance my eyes were stinging. It wasn't just smoke. It was gas too. The front door opened, and two men spilled out into the yard. One of them had a gun in his hand. He fell to his knees on the grass and began to retch. Jackie came at him from out of nowhere, put one big foot on the gun hand, and kicked him hard with the other. The other man, Garry Torrans, just lay on the ground, the heels of his hands pressed to his eyes. Seconds later, the back door opened and Olivia Morales stumbled out. David Torrans was close behind her. He was shirtless, and a wet towel was pressed to his face. Once he was away from the house he discarded it and made a break for the next yard. His eyes were red and streaming, but he wasn't suffering as badly as the others. He had almost made it to the wall when I emerged from the darkness and swept his feet from under him. He landed hard on his back, the wind abruptly knocked out of him by the impact. He lay there, staring up at me, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Who are you?" he said. "My name's Parker," I said. "You gassed us." He vomited the words out. "You tried to steal my car." "Yeah, but...you gassed us. What kind of sonofabitch gasses someone?" Jackie Garner shambled across the lawn. Behind him, I could see Garry and the other man lying on the ground, their hands and legs bound with plastic ties. Torrans's head turned to take in the new arrival. "This kind," I told him. Jackie shrugged. "Sorry," he said to Torrans. "At least I know it works."
G-Mack lit a cigarette and noticed that his hands were shaking. He didn't want to think about the girl in the picture. She was gone, and G-Mack didn't never want to see the men who took her again. They found out someone was asking after her, and then another pimp would be taking care of the Mack's team, because the Mack would be dead. The Mack didn't know it, but he had only days left to live. He should never have hit the woman. And in the white-tiled room, Alice, now torn and ruined, prepared to breathe her last. The mouth of another touched her lips, waiting. He could sense it coming, could taste its sweetness. The woman shuddered, then grew limp. He felt her spirit enter him, and a new voice was added to the great chorus within. Copyright © 2005 by John Connolly
The Unquiet Prologue This world is full of broken things: broken hearts, broken promises, broken people. This world, too, is a fragile construct, a honeycomb place where the past leaches into the present, where the weight of blood guilt and old sins causes lives to collapse and forces children to lie with the remains of their fathers in the tangled ruins of the aftermath. I am broken, and I have broken in return. Now I wonder how much hurt can be visited upon others before the universe takes action, before some outside force decides that enough has been endured. I once thought that it was a question of balance, but I no longer believe that. I think that what I have done was out of all proportion to what was done to me, but that is the nature of revenge. It escalates. It cannot be controlled. One hurt invites another, on and on until the original injury is all but forgotten in the chaos of what follows. I was a revenger once. I will be one no more. But this world is full of broken things. Old Orchard Beach, Maine 1986 T he Guesser removed the fold of bills from his pocket, licked his thumb, and discreetly counted the day’s takings. The sun was setting, shedding itself in shards of burning red like blood and ﬁre on the water. There were still people moving along the boardwalk, sipping sodas and eating hot buttered popcorn, while distant ﬁgures strolled along the beach, some hand in hand with another and some alone. The weather had altered in recent days, the evening temperature dropping noticeably and a sharp wind, a herald of a greater change to come, toying with the grains of sand as dusk descended, and the visitors no longer lingered as they once did. The Guesser felt his time there drawing to a close, for if they would not pause, then he could not work, and if he could not work, then he was no longer the Guesser. He would just be a small man standing before a rickety assemblage of signs and scales, trinkets and baubles. Without an audience to witness their display, his skills might as well not exist. The tourists had begun to thin, and soon this place would hold no appeal for the Guesser and his fellows: the hucksters, the nickel-a-ride merchants, the carnies, and the ﬂimﬂam men. They would be forced to depart for more rewarding climes, or hole up for the winter to live on the summer’s earnings. The Guesser could taste the sea and the sand upon his skin, salty and life-afﬁrming. He never failed to notice it, even after all these years. The sea gave him his living, in its way, for it drew the crowds to it, and the Guesser was waiting for them when they came, but his afﬁnity for it ran deeper than the money that it brought him. No, he recognized something of his own essence in it, in the taste of his sweat that was an echo of his own distant origins and the origin of all things, for he believed that a man who did not understand the lure of the sea was a man who was lost to himself. His thumb ﬂipped expertly through the bills, his lips moving slightly as he ran the count in his head. When he was done, he added the sum to his running total, then compared it with his earnings from the same time last year. He was down, just as last year had been down from the year before, and that year less than its predecessor in turn. People were more cynical now, and they and their children were less inclined to stand before a strange little man and his primitive-looking sideshow. He had to work ever harder to
earn even less, although not so little that he was about to consider giving up his chosen profession. After all, what else would he do? Clear tables at a buffet, maybe? Work behind the counter at Mickey D’s like some of the more desperate retirees that he knew, reduced to cleaning up after mewling infants and careless teenagers? No, that wasn’t for the Guesser. He had been following this path for the best part of forty years, and the way he felt he ﬁgured he was good for a few more yet, assuming he was spared by the great dealer in the sky. His mind was still sharp, and his eyes, behind the black-framed lenses, were still capable of taking in all that he needed to know about his marks in order to continue to make his modest living. Some might term what he had a gift, but he did not call it that. It was a skill, a craft, honed and developed year upon year, a vestige of a sense that was strong in our ancestors but had now been dulled by the comforts of the modern world. What he had was elemental, like the tides and currents of the ocean. Dave “the Guesser” Glovsky had ﬁrst arrived in Old Orchard Beach in 1948, when he was thirty-seven years old, and since then both his pitch and the tools of his trade had remained largely unchanged. His little concession on the boardwalk was dominated by an old wooden chair suspended by chains from a set of R. H. Forschner scales. A yellow sign, hand-painted roughly with a squiggly line drawing of Dave’s face, advertised his occupation and his location, just for those folks who maybe weren’t entirely sure where they were or what they were seeing once they got there. The sign read: the guesser, palace playland, old orchard beach, me. The Guesser was a ﬁxture at Old Orchard. He was as much a part of the resort as the sand in the soda and the saltwater taffy that sucked the ﬁllings from teeth.This was his place,and he knew it intimately.He had been coming here for so long, plying his trade, that he was acutely aware of seemingly inconsequential changes to his environment: a fresh coat of paint here, a mustache shaved there. Such things were important to him, for that was how he kept his mind keen and that, in turn, was how he put food on the table. The Guesser noticed all that went on around him, ﬁling the details away in his capacious memory, ready to extract that knowledge at the very moment when it would most proﬁt him to do so. In a sense, his nickname was a misnomer. Dave Glovsky did not guess. Dave Glovsky noticed. He estimated. He gauged. Unfortunately, Dave “the Noticer” Glovsky did not have quite the same ring about it. Neither did Dave “the Estimator,” so Dave “the Guesser” it was, and Dave “the Guesser” it would stay. The Guesser would guess your weight to within three pounds, or you won a prize. If that didn’t salt your bacon—and there were folks who didn’t particularly want their weight broadcast to a good-humored crowd on a bright summer’s day, thank you for asking and be about your business, just as the Guesser wasn’t overly anxious to test the strength of his scales by dangling three hundred pounds of all-American womanhood from them just to prove a point—then he was equally happy to take a swing at your age, your birth date, your occupation, your choice of car (foreign or domestic), even the brand of cigarettes that you favored. If the Guesser proved to be incorrect, then you went on your merry way clutching a plastic hair clip or a small bag of rubber bands, happy in the knowledge that you’d beaten the funny little man with his crooked, childlike signs—weren’t you the smart one?—and it might take you a while to ﬁgure out that you’d just paid the man ﬁfty cents for the pleasure of knowing something that you already knew before you arrived, with the added bonus of receiving ten rubber bands that cost about one cent wholesale. And it could be that maybe you looked back at the Guesser, wearing his white “Dave the Guesser” T-shirt, the letters ironed on in black at the concession stand farther along the boardwalk as a favor to Dave because everybody knew the Guesser, and you ﬁgured that maybe the Guesser was a very smart guy indeed. Because the Guesser was smart, smart in the way that Sherlock Holmes was smart, or Dupin, or the little Belgian, Poirot. He was an observer, a man who could ascertain the main circumstances of another’s
existence from his clothes, his shoes, the way he carried his cash, the state of his hands and his ﬁngernails, the things that caught his interest and attention as he walked along the boardwalk, even the minute pauses and hesitations, the vocal inﬂections and unconscious gestures by which he revealed himself in a thousand different ways. He paid attention in a culture that no longer put any value upon such a simple act. People did not listen or see, but only thought that they listened and saw. They missed more than they perceived, their eyes and ears constantly attuned to novelty, to the next new thing that might be thrown at them by TV, the radio, the movies, discarding the old before they had even begun to understand its meaning and its value. The Guesser was not like them. He belonged to a different order, to an older dispensation. He was attuned to sights and smells, to whispers that sounded loud in his ears, to tiny odors that tickled at the hairs in his nose and showed up as lights and colors in his mind. His sight was only one of the faculties that he used, and often it played a subsidiary role to the rest. Like early man, he did not rely on his eyes as his primary source of information. He trusted all his senses, utilizing them to the fullest. His mind was like a radio, constantly tuned to even the faintest transmissions of others. Some of it was easy, of course: age and weight were relatively simple for him. Cars were pretty much a done deal, too, at least at the beginning when most of the people who came to Old Orchard for their vacations did so in American-made cars. It was only later, in the eighties and nineties, that imports would become more prevalent, but even then, the odds were still about ﬁfty-ﬁfty. Occupations? Well, sometimes useful details might emerge in the course of the pitch, as the Guesser listened to their greetings, their answers, the way they responded to certain key words. Even while he was listening to what they were saying, Dave was examining their clothes and skin for telltale signs: a worn or stained shirt cuff on the right hand indicated someone who might have a desk job, and a lowly one if they had to wear their work shirt on vacation, while a closer examination of their hands might reveal the impression of a pen upon the thumb and index ﬁnger. Sometimes, there was a slight ﬂattening to the ﬁngertips on one or both hands, the former perhaps suggesting that here was someone who was used to pounding an adding machine, the latter almost certainly the sign of a typist. Chefs always had little burns on their forearms, grill marks on their wrists, calluses upon the index ﬁngers of their knife hands, healed and semihealed lines upon their ﬂesh where the blades had nicked them, and the Guesser had yet to meet a mechanic who could scrub every trace of oil from the grooves of his skin. He could tell a cop simply by looking at him, and military types might just as well have arrived in full regalia. But observation without memory was useless, and the Guesser was constantly taking in details from the crowds that thronged the seashore, from fragments of conversations to ﬂashes of possessions. If you decided to light up, then Dave would remember that the pack was Marlboro and that you were wearing a green tie. If you parked your car within sight of his concession, then you were “red suspenders Ford.” Everything was compartmentalized in case it might prove useful, for although the Guesser never really lost out on his bets, there was the small matter of professional pride and also the necessity of providing a good show for the watching folks. The Guesser hadn’t survived at Old Orchard for decades just by guessing wrong, then fobbing off the tourists with rubber bands by way of apology. He pocketed his earnings and took a last look around before he prepared to close up. He was tired, and his head hurt a little, but he would miss being here once the crowds were gone.The Guesser knew that there were those who bemoaned the state of Old Orchard and felt that the beautiful beach had been ruined by a century of development, by the arrival of roller coasters and fun houses and merry-go-rounds, by the smell of cotton candy and hot dogs and suntan lotion. Maybe they were right, but there were plenty of
other places for folks like that to go, while there weren’t so many where people could come for a week with their kids and live relatively cheaply while enjoying the sea, the sand, and the pleasure of trying to beat men like the Guesser. True, Old Orchard wasn’t like it once was. The kids were tougher, maybe even a little more dangerous. The town was looking more tawdry than before, and there was a sense of innocence lost rather than innocence recaptured. Ocean Park, the family-oriented religious resort that was part of Old Orchard, now looked increasingly like a throwback to another era, when education and selfimprovement were as much a part of one’s vacation time as amusement and relaxation. He wondered how many of those who came here to drink cheap beer and eat lobster from paper plates knew of the Methodists who had formed the Old Orchard Campground Association back in the 1870s, sometimes attracting crowds of ten thousand or more to hear speakers extoll the beneﬁts of a virtuous, sin-free life. Good luck trying to convince today’s tourists to give up an afternoon of sunbathing to listen to stories from the Bible. You didn’t have to be Dave the Guesser to ﬁgure out the odds on that one. Nevertheless, the Guesser loved Old Orchard. Through his little concession, he had been privileged to meet men like Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong, and he had the pictures on his wall to prove it. But while those encounters represented the great peaks of his career, his dealings with ordinary people had given him consistent pleasure and allowed him to stay young and sharp inside. Without people, Old Orchard would have meant far less to him, sea or no sea. The Guesser was already putting away his signs and his scales when the man approached; or perhaps it would be truer to say that the Guesser became aware of his approach before he even saw the man, for his long-departed ancestors had not relied on their senses to play guessing games in ﬂame-lit caves. No, they had required these senses to stay alive, to warn them of the coming of predators and enemies, and so their continued survival was dependent upon their constant engagement with the world around them.
Immediately, the Guesser turned casually and began taking in the stranger: late thirties, but looking older than his years; his blue jeans looser than was the current fashion; his T-shirt white but stained slightly at the belly; his boots heavy and suited to a motorcycle, not a car, yet without the wear on the soles that might have come from riding a hog; his hair dark and greased back in a D.A.; his features sharp and almost delicate; his chin small, his head compressed as if from long suffering beneath a great weight placed upon it, the bones in his face shaped like a kite beneath his tanned skin. He had a scar below his hairline: three parallel lines, as though the tines of a fork had been inserted into his ﬂesh and dragged down toward the bridge of his nose. His mouth was crooked, permanently downturned on one side and upturned slightly on the other, giving the impression that the symbolic masks of drama had been bisected and their disparate halves fused together over his skull. The lips were too big. They might almost have been called sensuous, but this was not a man whose demeanor spoke of such things. His eyes were brown, but ﬂecked with tiny white ﬂaws, like stars and planets suspended in their darkness. He smelled of eau de cologne and, lurking beneath, the rank stink of rendered animal fats, of blood and decay and waste voided in the ﬁnal moment when living became dying. Suddenly, Dave the Guesser wished that he had decided to pack up ﬁfteen minutes earlier, that his concession stand were ﬁrmly locked and bolted, and that he had already put as much distance between him and his beloved scales and signs as it was possible for a man of his advancing years to do. But even as he tried to break eye contact with the new arrival, he still found himself analyzing him, drawing information from his movements, his clothing, his scent. The man reached into one of the front pockets of his denims and drew from it a steel comb, which he raked through his hair with his right hand, his left following along behind to smooth down any stray strands. He cocked his head slightly to the right as he did so, as though sizing himself up in some mirror visible only to him, and it took the Guesser a moment to realize that he himself was that mirror. The stranger knew all about Dave and his “gift,” and even as he willed himself to stop, the Guesser was separating the preening man into his constituent parts, and the man was aware of what was being done and was enjoying seeing himself refracted through the older man’s perceptions. Clean, pressed denims, but with dirt on the knees. The stain on the T-shirt, like dried blood. The earth beneath the nails. The smell. Sweet God, the smell... And now the stranger was in front of him, and the comb was being eased back into the tight sheath of his pocket. The smile widened, all false bonhomie, and the man spoke. “You the guessin’ man?” he asked. His accent had an element of the South to it, but there was Down East there as well. He was trying to hide it, but Dave’s ear was too acute. The touch of Mainer to it wasn’t native, though. No, this was a man who could blend in, when he chose, who picked up the speech patterns and mannerisms of those around him, camouﬂaging himself the way— The way predators did. “I’m all done for today,” the Guesser said. “Tired out. I got nothing left.” “Ah, you got time for one more,” came the reply, and the Guesser knew that he was not being cajoled. He was being told.
He looked around, seeking a distraction, an excuse to depart, but now it seemed as if the stranger had cleared a space for himself, for there was no one else within earshot, and the attention of those who passed was clearly directed elsewhere. They looked at the other concessions, at the sea, at the shifting sands. They looked at distant cars and the unfamiliar faces of those who passed them by. They looked at the old boardwalk and at their feet and deep into the eyes of husbands and wives whom they had long since ceased to ﬁnd interesting but who now held inside them some previously unsuspected, if ﬂeeting, source of fascination. And had one suggested to them that they had somehow decided to turn their attention away from the little Guesser and the man who now stood before him, they would have dismissed the idea without appearing to give it a moment’s serious thought, but to an observant person—to someone like Dave the Guesser—the ﬂeeting expression of unease upon their faces as they spoke would have been enough to give the lie to their protestations. In that moment, they had become a little like the Guesser, some ancient, primal instinct woken from dormancy on a bright summer evening with the sun setting bloodily in the west. Maybe they truly didn’t realize that they were doing it, or perhaps self-respect and self-preservation prevented them from acknowledging it, even to themselves, but they were giving space to the man with the slicked-back hair. He exuded menace and threat and harm, and just to acknowledge his existence was to risk drawing attention to oneself. Better, then, to look away. Better for another to suffer, for a stranger to incur his displeasure, than to have him take an interest in one’s own affairs. Better to keep walking, to get into one’s car, to drive away without a single backward glance for fear that one might ﬁnd him staring into one’s eyes, his lazy half smile slowly widening as he memorized faces, the numbers on a license plate, the color of the paintwork, the dark hair of a wife, the budding body of an adolescent daughter. Better to pretend, then. Better not to notice. Better that than to wake up in the night to ﬁnd such a man staring down at you, blood warm upon him and a telltale light coming from a nearby bedroom, something dripping softly upon the bare ﬂoorboards within, something that was once alive there now alive no longer ... Dave knew then that this man was not so different from himself. He was an observer, a cataloger of human characteristics, but in the stranger’s case the observations were a prelude to harm. And now there were only the sounds of waves breaking, and voices fading, and the noises of the fairground rides dulling and muting as the stranger spoke, his tone insisting upon the attention of the listener to the exclusion of all else. “I want you to guess somethin’ about me,” he said. “What do you want to know?” said the Guesser, and all pretense of goodwill departed from his own voice. It would serve no purpose here. They were equals, of a sort. The man closed his right hand into a ﬁst. Two quarters rose from between his clenched ﬁngers. He raised the hand toward Dave, and Dave removed the coins with ﬁngers that barely trembled. “Tell me what I do for a livin’,” said the stranger. “And I want you to make your best guess. Your very best guess.” Dave heard the warning. He could have come up with something harmless, something innocent. You dig roads, maybe. You’re a gardener. You—
You work in an abattoir. No, too close. Mustn’t say that. You tear things apart. Living things. You hurt and you kill and you bury the evidence beneath the ground. And sometimes they ﬁght back. I see the scars around your eyes, and in the soft ﬂesh beneath your jaw. There’s a cluster of rough strands just above your forehead, and an inﬂamed patch of red at its base where the hair hasn’t grown back properly. What happened? Did a hand get free? Did ﬁngers grasp in desperation and tear a clump from your head? And even in your pain, was there not a part of you that relished the struggle, that enjoyed having to work for its prize? And what of those incisions below your hairline, what of them? You are a violent man, and violence has been visited upon you. You have been marked as a warning to others, so that even those who are foolish and distracted might know you when you come. Too late for the one who did it, perhaps, but a warning nonetheless. A lie might be the death of him. Maybe not now, maybe not even a week from now, but the man would remember, and he would return. Some night, Dave the Guesser would go back to his room, and the stranger would be sitting in an easy chair in the darkness opposite the window, taking long drags from a cigarette in his left hand, his right toying with a blade. “Glad you could make it at last. I been waitin’ for you. You remember me? I asked you to guess somethin’ about me, but you guessed wrong. You gave me a child’s toy as a prize, a prize for beating the Guesser, but that ain’t prize enough for me, and you was wrong to think that it was. I ﬁgure I ought to correct your misapprehension. I ﬁgure you really ought to know what I do for a livin’. Here, let me show you...” The stranger turned his hands slowly for Dave, displaying the palms, then the backs of the hands, and ﬁnally the almost delicate ﬁngers, a thin sliver of dirt visible beneath the tip of each nail. “So tell me,” he said. “Tell me true.” Dave looked him in the eye. “You cause pain,” said Dave. The stranger looked amused. “Is that so?” he said. “You hurt people.” “Uh-huh?” “You’ve killed,” and Dave both heard himself say the words and saw himself from without. He was ﬂoating apart from the scene unfolding before him, his soul already anticipating the separation from this life that was to come. The stranger shook his head and looked at his own hands, as though quietly astonished at what they had revealed.
“Well,” he said at last, “I reckon that’s worth ﬁfty cents of any man’s money, and no mistake. That’s quite the tale. Quite the tale.” He nodded to himself. “Uh-huh,” he said softly. “Uh-huh.” “You want to claim a prize?” said Dave. “You can have a prize if I guessed wrong.” He gestured behind him at the rubber bands, the hair clips, the packs of balloons. Take one. Please take one. Take ’em all, anything you want, just get away from me. Walk away and keep walking and never, ever come back here. And if it’s any consolation, know that I’ll never forget the smell of you or the sight of you. Not ever. I’ll keep it with me, and I’ll always be watching for you in case you come again. “Nah,” said the stranger. “You keep ’em. I was entertained. You entertained me.” He backed away from Dave the Guesser, still nodding, still softly “uh-huh”-ing. Just as the Guesser felt certain he was about to be rid of him, the stranger stopped. “Professional pride,” he said suddenly. “Pardon me?” said the Guesser. “I think that’s what we got in common: we take pride in what we do. You could have lied to me, but you didn’t. I could have lied to you and taken one of them shitty balloon packs, but I didn’t do that either. You respected me, and I respected you in return. We’re men, you and I.” The Guesser didn’t reply. There was nothing to say. He tasted something in his mouth. It was sour and unpleasant. He wanted to open his mouth and breathe in the salt sea air, but not yet, not while the stranger was nearby. He wanted to be rid of him ﬁrst, for fear that some of his essence might enter him in that single breath, polluting his being. “You can tell folks about me, if you like,” said the stranger. “I don’t much care either way. I’ll be long gone before anybody takes it into his head to come looking for me, and even if they do ﬁnd me, what are they gonna say? That some little sideshow huckster in a cheap T-shirt told them to look me up, that maybe I might have somethin’ to hide or a story to tell?” His hands busied themselves retrieving his pack of cigarettes from his jeans. The pack was battered, and slightly ﬂattened. He shook a slim brass lighter from within, then followed it with a cigarette. He rolled the cigarette between his ﬁnger and thumb before lighting up, the lighter and the pack disappearing back into his pocket. “Maybe I’ll be through here again someday,” he said. “I’ll look you up.” “I’ll be here,” said the Guesser. Come back if you like, then, you animal. Make no mistake, I’m scared of you, and I believe that I have good cause to be, but don’t think I’m going to show it. You won’t get that satisfaction, not from me. “I hope so,” said the stranger. “I surely do hope so.”
But the Guesser never saw him again, although he thought of him often, and once or twice in his remaining years, as he stood on the boardwalk and appraised the passing crowds, he was conscious of eyes upon him and he felt certain that, somewhere nearby, the stranger was watching him, perhaps in amusement or, as the Guesser often feared, perhaps with regret for ever allowing the truth about himself to be revealed in such a way, and with the desire to undo that mistake. Dave “the Guesser” Glovsky died in 1997, nearly ﬁfty years after he had ﬁrst arrived in Old Orchard Beach. He spoke of the stranger to those who would listen, of the stink of fats that arose from him and the dirt beneath his nails and the copper stains upon his shirt. Most of those who heard merely shook their heads at what they believed was just another attempt by the showman to add to his own legend; but some listened, and they remembered, and they passed on the tale so that others might be watchful for such a man in case he returned. The Guesser, of course, had been right: the man did come back in the years that followed, sometimes for his own purposes and sometimes on the orders of others, and he both took and created life. But when he returned for the last time, he drew the clouds around him like a cloak, darkening the skies as he came, seeking death and the memory of a death in the faces of others. He was a broken man, and he would break others in his anger. He was Merrick, the revenger.
The Reapers Prologue Sometimes, Louis dreams of the Burning Man. He comes to him when the night is at its deepest, when even the sounds of the city have faded, descending from symphonic crescendo to muted nocturne. Louis is not even sure if he is truly asleep when the Burning Man comes, because it seems to him that he wakes to the sound of his partner’s slow breathing in the bed beside him, a smell in his nostrils that is familiar yet alien: it is the stink of charred meats allowed to rot, of human fats sizzling in an open ﬂame. If it is a dream, then it is a waking dream, one that occurs in the netherworld between consciousness and absence. The Burning Man had a name once, but Louis can no longer utter it. His name is not enough to encompass his identity; it is too narrow, too restrictive for what he has become to Louis. He does not think of him as “Errol,” or “Mr. Rich,” or even “Mr. Errol,” which is how he had always addressed him when he was alive. He is now more than a name, much more. Still, once he was Mr. Errol: all brawn and muscle, his skin the color of damp, fertile earth recently turned by the plow; gentle and patient for the most part, but with something simmering beneath his seemingly placid nature, so that if you caught him unawares it was possible to glimpse it in his eyes before it slipped away, like some rare beast that has learned the importance of staying beyond the range of the hunters’ guns, of the white men in the white suits. For the hunters were always white. There was a ﬁre burning in Errol Rich, a rage at the world and its ways. He tried to keep it under control, for he understood that, if it emerged unchecked, there was the danger that it would consume all in its path, himself included. Perhaps it was an anger that would not have been alien to many of his brothers and sisters at that time: he was a black man trapped in the rhythms and rituals of a white man’s world, in a town where he and those like him were not permitted to roam once dusk fell. Things were changing elsewhere, but not in this country, and not in this town. Change would come more slowly to this place. Maybe, in truth, it would never come at all, not entirely, but that would be for others to deal with, not Errol Rich. By the time certain people started talking aloud about rights without fear of reprisal, Errol Rich no longer existed, not in any form that those who once knew him could have recognized. His life had been extinguished years before, and in the moment of his dying he was transformed. Errol Rich passed from this earth, and in his place came the Burning Man, as though the ﬁre inside had ﬁnally found a way to bloom forth in bright red and yellow, exploding from within to devour his ﬂesh and consume his former consciousness, so that what was once a hidden part of him became all that he was. Others might have held the torch to him, or sprayed the gasoline that soaked and blinded him in his ﬁnal moments as he was hanged from a tree, but Errol Rich was already burning, even then, even as he asked them to spare him from the agonies that were to come. He had always burned, and in that way, at least, he defeated the men who took his life.
And from the moment that he died, the Burning Man stalked Louis’s dreams. Louis remembers how it came to pass: an argument with whites. Somehow, that was often how it started. The whites made the rules, but the rules kept changing. They were ﬂuid, deﬁned by circumstance and necessity, not by words on paper. Later, Louis would reﬂect that what was strangest of all was the fact that the white men and women who ran the town would always deny that they were racist. We don’t hate the coloreds, they would say, we just all get along better when they keep themselves to themselves. Or: they’re welcome in the town during the day, but we just don’t think they should spend the night. It’s for their own safety as much as ours. Curious. It was as hard then as it was now to ﬁnd anybody who would admit to being a racist. Even most racists, it seemed, were ashamed of their intolerance. But there were also those who wore such an epithet as a badge of honor, and the town had its share of such people as well. It was said that the trouble started when a group of local men threw a heavy pitcher ﬁlled with urine through the cracked old windshield of Errol’s truck, and Errol responded in kind. That temper of his, that fury that he kept bottled inside of him, had erupted, and he had tossed a length of two-by-four through the window of Little Tom’s bar in reprisal. That had been enough for them to act against him, that and their fear of what he represented. He was a black man who spoke better than most of the white people in the town. He owned his own truck. He could ﬁx things with his hands—radios, TVs, air conditioners, anything that had a current ﬂowing through it—and he could ﬁx them better and cheaper than anyone else, so that even those who wouldn’t allow him to walk the town’s streets at night were happy to let him into their homes to ﬁx their appliances during the day, even if some of them didn’t feel quite as comfortable in their living rooms afterward, although they weren’t racists either. They just didn’t like strangers in their home, particularly colored strangers. If they oﬀered him water to slake his thirst, they were careful to present it to him in the cheap tin cup set aside for just such an eventuality, the cup from which no one else would drink, the cup kept with the cleaning products and the brushes, so that the water always had a faint chemical burn to it. There was talk that maybe he might soon be in a position to employ others like him, to train them and pass on his skills to them. And he was a good-looking man, too, a “nigger buck” as Little Tom had once described him, except that, when he said it, Little Tom had been cradling the hunting riﬂe that used to hang above his bar, and it was clear what being a buck implied in Little Tom’s world. So they hadn’t needed much of an excuse to move against Errol Rich, but he had given them one nonetheless, and before the week was out, they had doused him in gasoline, hanged him from a tree, and set him alight. And that was how Errol Rich became the Burning Man. Errol Rich had a wife in a city a hundred miles to the north. He’d fathered a child with her, and once each month he would drive up to see them and make sure that they had what they needed Errol Rich’s wife had a job in a big hotel. Errol used to work in that hotel, too, as a handyman, but something had happened—that temper again, it was whispered—and he had to leave his wife
and child and ﬁnd work elsewhere. On those other weekend nights when he was not seeing to his family, Errol could be found drinking quietly in the little lean-to out in the swamps that served as a bar and social hub for the coloreds, tolerated by the local law as long as there was no trouble and no whoring, or none that was too obvious. Louis’s momma would sometimes go there with her friends, even though Grandma Lucy didn’t approve. There was music, and often Louis’s momma and Errol Rich would dance together, but there was a sadness and a regret to their rhythms, as though this was now all that they had, and all that they would ever have. While others drank rotgut, or “jitter juice”as Grandma Lucy still called it, Louis’s momma sipped on a soda and Errol stuck to beer. Just one or two, though. He never was much for drinking, he used to say, and he didn’t like to smell it on others ﬁrst thing in the morning, especially not on a working man, although he wasn’t about to police another’s pleasures, no sir. On warm summer nights, when the air was ﬁlled with the burr of katydids, and mosquitoes, drawn by the heady mix of sweat and sugar, fed upon the men and women in the club, and the music was loud enough to shake dust from the ceiling, and the crowd was distracted by noise and scent and movement, Errol Rich and Louis’s momma would perform their slow dance, unheeding of the rhythms that surrounded them, alive only to the beating of their own hearts, their bodies pressed so close that, in time, those beats came in unison and they were one together, their ﬁngers intertwined, their palms moving damply, one upon the other. And sometimes that was enough for them, and sometimes it was not. Mr. Errol would always give Louis a quarter when their paths crossed. He would comment upon how tall Louis had grown, how well he looked, how proud his momma must be of him. And Louis thought, although he could not say why, that Mr. Errol was proud of him, too. On the night that Errol Rich died, Louis’s Grandma Lucy, the matriarch of the house of women in which Louis grew up, fed Louis’s mother bourbon and a dose of morphine to help her sleep. Louis’s momma had been weeping all week, ever since she heard of what had passed between Errol and Little Tom. Later, Louis was told that she had gone over to Errol’s place at noon that day, her sister in tow, and had pleaded with him to leave, but Errol wasn’t going to run, not again. He told her that it would all work out. He said that he had gone to see Little Tom and had apologized for what he had done. He had paid over forty dollars that he could ill aﬀord to cover the damage, and as compensation for Little Tom’s trouble, and Little Tom had accepted the money gruﬄy and told Errol that what was done was done, and he forgave him his moment of ill temper. It had pained Errol to pay the money, but he wanted to stay where he was, to live and work with people whom he liked and respected. And loved. That was what he told Louis’s mother, and that was what Louis’s aunt told him, many years later. She described how Errol and Louis’s momma had held hands as they spoke, and how she had walked outside for a breath of air to give them their privacy. When Louis’s momma eventually emerged from Errol’s cabin, her face was very pale and her
mouth was trembling. She knew what was coming, and Errol Rich knew it, too, no matter what Little Tom might say. She went home and cried so much that she lost her breath and blacked out on the kitchen table, and it was then that Grandma Lucy took it upon herself to give her a little something to ease her suﬀering, so Louis’s momma had slept while the man she loved burned. That night, the lean-to was closed, and the blacks who worked in the town left long before dusk came. They stayed in their houses and their shacks, their families close by, and nobody spoke. Mothers sat and kept vigil over their children as they slept, or held the hands of their menfolk over bare tables or seated by empty grates and cold stoves. They had felt it coming, like the heat before a storm, and they had ﬂed, angry and ashamed at their powerlessness to intervene. And so they had waited for the news of Errol Rich’s leaving of this world. On the night that Errol Rich died, Louis can remember waking to the sound of a woman’s footsteps outside the little box room in which he slept. He can recall climbing from his bed, the boards warm beneath his bare feet, and walking to the open door of their cabin. He sees his grandmother on the porch, staring out into the darkness. He calls to her, but she does not answer. There is music playing, the voice of Bessie Smith. His grandmother always loved Bessie Smith. Grandma Lucy, a shawl draped around her shoulders over her nightdress, steps down into the yard in her bare feet. Louis follows her. Now all is no longer dark. There is a light in the forest, a slow burning. It is shaped like a man, a man writhing in agony as teams consume him. He walks through the forest, the leaves turning to black in his wake. Louis can smell the gasoline and the roasted ﬂesh, can see the skin charring, can hear the hissing and popping of body fats. His grandmother reaches out a hand behind her, never taking her eyes from the Burning Man, and Louis places his palm against her palm, his ﬁngers against her ﬁngers, and as she tightens her grip upon him, his fear fades and he feels only grief for what this man is enduring. There is no anger. That will come later. For now, there is only an overwhelming sadness that falls upon him like a dark cloak. His grandmother whispers, and begins to weep. Louis weeps, too, and together they drown the ﬂames, even as the Burning Man’s mouth forms words that Louis cannot quite hear, as the ﬁre dies and the image fades, until all that is left is the smell of him and an image seared upon Louis’s retina like the aftermath of a photographic ﬂash. And now, as Louis lies in a bed far from the place in which he grew up, the one he loves sleeping soundly beside him, he smells gasoline and roasted meat, and sees again the Burning Man’s lips move, and thinks that he understands part of what was said on that night so many years before. Sorry. Tell her I am sorry. Most of what follows is lost to him, wreathed in ﬁre. Only two words stand out, and even now Louis is not certain if he interprets them correctly, if the movement of that lipless gap truly corresponds to what he believes was uttered, or to what he wants to believe.
Son. My son. There was a ﬁre inside Errol Rich, and something of that fire transferred itself to the boy at the moment of Errol’s death. It burns within him now, but where Errol Rich found a way to deny it, to temper its ﬂames until at last, perhaps inevitably, it rose up and destroyed him, Louis has embraced it. He fuels it, and it, in turn, fuels him, but it is a delicate balance that he maintains. The ﬁre needs to be fed if it is not to feed upon him instead, and the men he kills are the sacriﬁces that he oﬀers to it. Errol Rich’s ﬁre was a deep, scorching red, but the ﬂames inside Louis burn white and cold. Son. My son. At night, Louis dreams of the Burning Man. And, somewhere, the Burning Man dreams of him.
The Lovers Prologue I tell myself that this is not an investigation. It is for others to be investigated, but not for my family, and not for me. I will delve into the lives of strangers, and I will expose their secrets and their lies, sometimes for money, and sometimes because that is the only way to lay old ghosts to rest, but I do not want to pick and scratch in such a way at what I have always believed of my mother and fa-ther. They are gone. Let them sleep. But there are too many questions left unanswered, too many inconsistencies in the narrative constructed of their lives, a tale told by them and continued by others. I can no longer allow them to remain unexamined. My father, William Parker, known to his friends as Will, died when I was almost sixteen years old. He was a cop in the Ninth, on the Lower East Side of New York, loved by his wife, and faithful to her, with a son whom he adored and by whom he was adored in return. He chose to remain in uniform, and not to seek promotion, because he was content to serve on the streets as an ordinary patrolman. He had no secrets, at least none so terrible that he, or those close to him, might have been damaged beyond repair had they been revealed. He lived an ordinary, smalltown existence, or as ordinary as he could lead when the cycles of his days were determined by duty rosters, by killings, by theft and drug abuse, and by the predations of the strong and ruthless upon the weak and defenseless. His flaws were minor, his sins venial. Every one of these statements is a lie, except that he loved his son, although his son sometimes forgot to love him back. After all, I was a teenager when he died, and what boy, at that age, is not already knocking heads with his father, attempting to establish his primacy over the old man in the house who no longer understands the nature of the ever-changing world around him? So, did I love him? Of course, but by the end I was refusing to admit it to him, or to myself. Here, then, is the truth. My father did not die of natural causes: he took his own life. His lack of advancement was not a matter of choice, but of punishment. His wife did not love him or, if she did, she did not love him as she once had, for he had betrayed her and she could not bring herself to forgive that betrayal. He did not lead an ordinary existence, and people died to keep his secrets. He had grave weaknesses, and his sins were mortal. One night, my father killed two unarmed teenagers on a patch of waste ground not far from where we lived in Pearl river. They were not much older than I was. He shot the boy first, and
then the girl. He used his off-duty revolver, a .38 Colt with a two-inch barrel, because he was not in uniform at the time. The boy was hit in the face, the girl in the chest. When he was sure that they were dead, my father, as though in a trance, drove back to the city, and showered and changed in the locker room of the Ninth, where they came for him. Less than twenty-four hours later, he shot himself. For my entire adult life, I have wondered why he acted as he did, but it seemed to me that there were no answers to be found to that question, or perhaps that was the lie I was happier to tell myself. Until now. It is time to call this what it is. This is an investigation into the circumstances of my father’s death. Chapter 1 The Faraday boy had been missing for three days. On the first day, nothing was done. After all, he was twenty-one, and young men of that age no longer had to abide by curfews and parental rules. Still, his behavior was out of character for him. Bobby Faraday was trustworthy. He was a graduate student, although he had taken a year off before deciding on the direction of his graduate studies in engineering, with talk of going abroad for a couple of months, or working for his uncle in San Diego. Instead, he had stayed in his hometown, saving money by living with his parents and banking as much of what he earned as he could, which was a little less than the previous year as he could now drink with impunity, and was maybe indulging that newfound liberty with more enthusiasm than might have been considered entirely wise. He’d had a couple of killer hangovers over New Year’s, that was for sure, and his old man had advised him to ease up before his liver started crying out for mercy, but Bobby was young, he was immortal, and he was in love, or had been until recently. Perhaps it would be truer to say that Bobby Faraday was still in love, but the object of his affection had moved on, leaving Bobby mired in his own emotions. The girl was why he had opted to remain in town instead of seeing a little more of the world, a decision that had been met with mixed feelings by his parents: gratitude on the part of his mother, disappointment on that of his father. There had been some arguments about it at the start, but now, as with two reluctant armies on the verge of an unwanted battle, a truce of kinds had been declared between father and son, although each side continued to watch the other warily to see which one might blink first. Meanwhile, Bobby drank, and his father fumed, but remained silent in the hope that the ending of the relationship might lead his son to broaden his horizons until grad school in the fall. Despite his occasional overindulgences, Bobby was never late for work at the auto shop and gas station, and usually left a little later than he had to, because there was always something to be done, some task that he did not wish to abandon uncompleted, even if it could be finished quickly and easily in the morning. It was one of the reasons his father, whatever their
disagreements, didn’t worry too much about his son’s future prospects: Bobby was too conscientious to leave the beaten track for long. He liked order, and always had. He’d never been one of those messy teenagers, either in appearance or in approach. It just wasn’t in his nature. But he hadn’t come home the night before, and he hadn’t called to tell his parents where he might be, and that in itself was unusual. Then he didn’t make it to work the following morning, which was so out of character that Ron Nevill, who owned the gas station, called the Faraday house to check on the boy and make sure that he wasn’t ailing. His mother expressed surprise that her son wasn’t already at work. She’d simply assumed that he’d come home late and left early. She checked his bedroom, which lay just off the basement den. His bed had not been slept in, and there was no indication that he’d spent the night on the couch instead. When there was no word by 3 p.m., she called her husband at work. Together they checked with Bobby’s friends, casual acquaintances, and his ex-girlfriend, Emily Kindler. That last call had been delicate, as she and Bobby had broken up only a couple of weeks before. His father suspected that this was the reason his son was drinking more than he should have, but he wouldn’t have been the first man who tried to drown love’s sorrows in a batch of alcohol. The trouble was that frustrated love was buoyant in booze: the more you tried to force it to the bottom, the more it insisted on bobbing right back up to the top. Nobody had heard from Bobby, or had seen him, since the previous day. When 7 p.m. came and went, they called the police. The chief was skeptical. He was new in town, but familiar with the ways of young people. Nevertheless, he accepted that this was not typical behavior for Bobby Faraday, and that twenty-four hours had now gone by since he left the gas station, for Bobby had not hit any of the local bars after work, and Ron Nevill seemed to be the last person to have seen him. The chief put together a description of the boy at the Faraday house, borrowed a photograph that had been taken the previous summer, and informed local law enforcement and the state police of a possible missing person. None of the other agencies responded with any great urgency, for they were almost as cynical about the behavior of young males as the chief was, and in the case of one going missing, they tended to wait for seventy-two hours before assuming that there might be more to the disappearance than a simple case of booze, hormones, or domestic difficulties. On the second day, his parents, and their friends, began an informal canvass of the town and its environs, with no result. When it began to grow dark, his mother and father returned home, but they did not sleep that night, just as they had not slept the night before. His mother lay in bed, her face turned toward the window, straining to hear the sound of approaching footsteps, the familiar tread of her only son returning to her at last. She stirred only slightly when she heard her husband rise and put on his robe. “What is it?”she asked. “Nothing,” he said. “I’m going to make some tea, sit up for a while.”He paused.“You want some?”
But she knew that he was asking only out of politeness, that he would prefer it if she stayed where she was. He did not want them to sit at the kitchen table in silence, together but apart, the fears of one feeding those of the other. He wanted to be alone. So she let him go, and when the bedroom door closed behind him, she began to cry. On the third day, the formal search began. The golden host moved as one, countless shapes bending obediently in unison at the gentle touch of the late-winter breeze, like a congregation at church bowing in accordance with the progress of the service, awaiting the moment of consecration that is to come. They whispered to themselves, a soft, low susurrus that might have been the crashing of distant waves were such an alien noise not unknown in this landlocked place. The paleness of them was dappled in spots by small flowers of red and orange and blue, a scattering of petals upon an ocean of seed and stem. The host had been spared the reaping, and had grown tall, too tall, even as the crop decayed. A season’s grain had gone to waste, for the old man upon whose land the host was gathered had died the previous summer, and his relatives were fighting over the sale of the property and how the proceeds would be divided. While they fought, the host had stretched skyward, a sea of dull gold in the depths of winter, speaking in hushed tones of what lay, rush hemmed and undiscovered, nearby. And yet the host, it seemed, was at peace. Suddenly, the breeze dropped for an instant and the host stood erect, as though troubled by the change, sensing that all was not as it had been, and then the wind rose again, more tempestuous now, transforming into smaller, dispersed gusts that divided the host with ripples and eddies, their caresses less delicate than what had gone before. Unity was replaced by confusion. Scattered fragments were caught in the sunlight before they fell to the ground. The whispering grew louder, drowning the calling of a solitary bird with rumors of approach. A black shape appeared upon the horizon, like a great insect hovering over the stalks. It grew in stature, becoming the head, shoulders, and body of a man, passing between the rows of wheat while, ahead of him, a smaller form cleaved invisibly through the stalks, sniffing and yelping as it went, the first intruders upon the host’s territory since the old man had died. A second figure came into view, heavier than the first. This one seemed to be struggling with the terrain and with the unaccustomed exercise that his participation in the search had forced upon him. In the distance, but farther to the east, the two men could see other searchers. Somehow, they had drifted away from the main pack, although that itself had diminished as the day wore on. Already the light was fading. Soon it would be time to call a halt, and there would be fewer of them to search in the days that followed. They had begun that morning, immediately after Sunday services. The searchers had congregated
at the Catholic church, St. Jude’s, since that had the largest yard and, curiously, the smallest congregation, a contradiction that Peyton Carmichael, the man with the dog, had never quite understood. Perhaps, he figured, they were expecting a mass conversion at some point in the future, which made him wonder if Catholics were just more optimistic than other folks. The chief of police and his men had divided the township into grids, and the townspeople themselves into groups, and had assigned each group an area to search. Sandwiches, potato chips, and sodas in brown bags had been provided by the various churches, although most people had brought food and water of their own, just in case. In a break with Sunday tradition, none had dressed up in the usual finery. Instead, they wore loose shirts and old pants, and battered boots or comfortable sneakers. Some carried sticks, others garden rakes to search in the undergrowth. There was an air of subdued expectation, a kind of excitement despite the task before them. They shared rides, and drove out to their assigned areas. As each area was searched, and nothing found, another was suggested either by the cops who were coordinating the efforts on the ground, or by contacting the base of operations that had been set up in the hall behind the church. It had been unseasonably warm when they began, a curious false thaw that would soon end, and the difficulty of coping with soft ground and melting snow had sapped the strength of many before they took a break for lunch at about one or one thirty. Some of the older people had returned home at that stage, content to have made some effort for the Faradays, but the rest continued with the search. After all, the next day was Monday. There would be work to do, obligations to be met. This day was the only one that they could spare to look for the boy, and the best would have to be made of it. But as the light had grown dim, so too the day had grown colder, and Peyton was grateful that he had not left his Timberland jacket in the car but had chosen to tie it around his waist until it was needed. He whistled at his dog, a three-year-old spaniel named Molly, and waited, once again, for his companion to catch up. Artie Hoyt: of all the people with whom he had to end up. relations between the two men had been cool for the last year or more, ever since Artie had caught Peyton eyeing his daughter’s ass at church. It didn’t matter to Artie that he hadn’t seen exactly what he thought he’d seen. Yes, Peyton had been looking at his daughter’s ass, but not out of any feelings of lust or attraction. Not that he was above such base impulses: at times, the pastor’s sermons were so dull that the only thing keeping Peyton awake was the sight of young, lithe female forms draped in their Sunday best. Peyton was long past the age when he might have been troubled by the potential implications for his immortal soul of such carnal thoughts in church. He figured that god had better things to worry about than whether Peyton Carmichael, sixty-four, widower, was paying more attention to objects of female beauty than he was to the old blowhard at the pulpit, a man who, in Peyton’s opinion, possessed less Christian charity than the average alligator. As Peyton’s doctor liked to tell him, live a life of wine, women, and song, all in moderation but always of the proper vintage. Peyton’s wife had died three years earlier, taken by breast cancer, and although there were plenty of women in town of the correct vintage who might have been prepared to offer Peyton some comfort on a winter’s evening, he just wasn’t interested. He had loved his wife. occasionally he was still lonely, although less often than before, but those feelings of loneliness were specific, not general: he missed his wife, not female company, and he viewed the occasional pleasure that he took in the sight of a young, good-looking woman merely
as a sign that he was not entirely dead below the waist. god, having taken his wife from him, could allow him that small indulgence. If god was going to make a big deal of it, then, well, Peyton would have a few words for Him too, when eventually they met. The problem with Artie Hoyt’s daughter was that, although she was young, she was by no means good looking. Neither was she lithe. In fact, she was the opposite of lithe and, come to think of it, the opposite of light too. She’d never been what you might call svelte, but then she had left town and gone to live in Baltimore, and by the time she came back she’d piled on the pounds. Now, when she walked into church, Peyton was sure that he felt the floor tremble slightly beneath her feet. If she were any bigger, she’d have to enter sideways; that, or they’d be forced to widen the aisles. And so, the first Sunday after she’d returned to the parental home, she had entered the chapel with her mom and dad and Peyton had found himself staring in appalled fascination at her ass, jiggling under a red-and-white floral dress like an earthquake in a rose garden. His jaw might even have been hanging open when he turned to find Artie Hoyt glaring at him, and after that, well, things had never been quite the same between them. They hadn’t been close before the incident, but at least they’d been civil when their paths had crossed. Now they rarely exchanged even a nod of greeting, and they hadn’t spoken to each other until fate, and the missing Faraday boy, had forced them together. They’d been part of a group of eight that had started out in the morning, quickly falling to six after old Blackwell and his wife seemed set to pass out and had, reluctantly, turned back for home, then five, four, three, until now it was just Artie and him. Peyton didn’t understand at first why Artie didn’t just give up and go home himself. Even the modest pace that Peyton and Molly were setting seemed too much for him, and they had been forced to stop repeatedly to allow Artie to catch his breath and gulp water from the bottle that he was carrying in his rucksack. It had taken Peyton a while to figure out that Artie wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he’d kept searching while Artie had faded, even if the other man were to die in the attempt. With that in mind, Peyton had taken a malicious pleasure in forcing the pace for a time, until he acknowledged that his needless cruelty was rendering null and void his earlier efforts at worship and penitence, the occasional glance at young women notwithstanding. They were nearing the boundary fence between this property and the next, a field of fallow, overgrown land with a small pond at its center sheltered by trees and rushes. Peyton had only a little water left, and Molly was thirsty. He figured he could water her at the pond, then call it a day. He couldn’t see Artie objecting, just as long as it was Peyton who suggested quitting, and not him. “Let’s head into the field there and check it out,” said Peyton.“I need to get water for the dog anyway. After that, we can cut back onto the road and take an easy walk back to the cars. okay with you?” Artie nodded. He walked to the fence, rested his hands upon it, and tried to hoist himself up and over. He got one foot off the ground, but the other wouldn’t join it. He simply didn’t have the
strength to continue. Peyton thought he looked like he wanted to lie down and die, but he didn’t. There was something admirable about his refusal to give up, even if it had less to do with any concerns about Bobby Faraday than his anger at Peyton Carmichael. Eventually, though, he was forced to admit defeat, and landed back down on the same side on which he’d started. “Goddammit,” he said. “Hold up,” said Peyton.“I’ll boost you over.” “I can do it,” said Artie. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.” “Come on. Neither of us is as young as he was. I’ll help you over, and then you can give me a hand up from the other side. No sense in both of us killing ourselves just to prove a point.” Artie considered the proposal and nodded his agreement. Peyton tied Molly’s leash to the fence, in case she caught a scent and decided to make a break for freedom, then leaned down and cupped his hands so that Artie could put one booted foot into his grip. When the boot was in place, and Artie’s hold on the fence seemed secure, Peyton pushed up. Either he was stronger than he thought, which was possible, or Artie was lighter than he looked, which seemed unlikely, but, either way, Peyton ended up almost catapulting Artie over the fence. only the judicious hooking of his left leg and right arm on the slats saved Artie from an awkward landing on the other side. “The hell was that?”asked Artie once he had climbed down and had both feet on firm ground once again. “Sorry,” said Peyton. He was trying not to laugh, and only partially succeeding. “Yeah, well, I don’t know what you’re eating, but I could sure do with some of it.” Peyton began climbing the fence. He was in good condition for a man of his age, a fact that gave him no little pleasure. Artie reached a hand up to steady him and, although Peyton didn’t need it, he took it anyway. “Funny,” said Peyton, as he stepped down from the fence, “but I don’t eat so much anymore. I used to have a hell of an appetite, but now some breakfast and a snack in the evening does me just fine. I even had to make an extra hole in my belt to stop my damn pants from falling down.” There was an unreadable expression on Artie Hoyt’s face as he glanced down at his own belly and reddened slightly. Peyton winced. “I didn’t mean anything by that, Artie,” he said quietly. “When Rina was alive, I weighed thirty pounds more than I do now. She fed me up like she was going to slaughter me for Christmas. Without her ...” He trailed off and looked away.
“Don’t talk to me about it,” said Artie after a moment had passed. He appeared anxious to keep the conversation going, now that the long silence between them had at last been broken. “My wife doesn’t believe it’s food unless it’s deep fried, or comes in a bun. I think she’d deep-fry candy if she could.” “They do that in some places,” Peyton said. “You don’t say?”Artie looked mildly disgusted. “Jesus, don’t tell her that. Chocolate’s the closest that she gets to health food as it is.” They began walking toward the pond. Peyton let Molly off the leash. He knew that she had sensed the presence of water, and he didn’t want to torment her by forcing her to walk at their pace. The dog raced ahead, a streak of brown and white, and soon was lost from sight in the tall grass. “Nice dog,” said Artie. “Thank you,” said Peyton.“She’s a good girl. She’s like a child to me, I guess.” “Yeah,” said Artie. He knew that Peyton and his wife had not been blessed with children. “Look, Artie,” said Peyton, “there’s something I’ve been meaning to say for a while.” He paused as he tried to find the right words, then took a deep breath and plowed right in. “In church, that time, after Lydia had come home, I— Well, I wanted to apologize for staring at her, you know, her . . .” “Ass,” finished Artie. “Yeah, that. I’m sorry, is all I wanted to say. It wasn’t right. Especially in church. Wasn’t Christian. It wasn’t what you might think, though.” Suddenly, Peyton realized that he had wandered onto marshy ground, conversationally speaking. He now faced the possibility of being forced to explain both what he believed Artie might have thought Peyton was thinking, and what, in fact, he, Peyton, had been thinking, which was that Artie Hoyt’s daughter looked like the Hindenburg just before it crashed. “She’s a big girl,” said Artie sadly, saving Peyton from further embarrassment. “It’s not her fault. Her marriage broke up, and the doctors gave her pills for depression, and she suddenly started to put on all this weight. Doesn’t help that she eats enough for two, but that’s part of it, you know, the eating. She gets sad, she eats more, she gets sadder, she eats even more. It’s a vicious cycle. I don’t blame you for staring at her. Hell, she wasn’t my daughter, I’d stare at her that way too. In fact, sometimes, it shames me to say, I do stare at her that way.”
“Anyway, I’m sorry,” said Peyton.“It wasn’t ...kind.” “Apology accepted,” said Artie.“Buy me a drink next time we’re in Dean’s.” He put his hand out, and the two men shook. Peyton patted Artie on the back. He felt his eyes water slightly, and blamed it on his exertions. “How about I buy you a beer when we’re done here? I could do with something to toast the end of a long day.” “Agreed. Let’s water your dog and get the—” He stopped. They were within sight of the sheltered pond. It had been a popular trysting spot, once upon a time, when both Artie and Peyton were much younger men, until the land changed hands and the new owner, the god-fearing man whose estate was now being fought over by his godless relatives, had let it be known that he didn’t want any adolescent voyages of sexual discovery being embarked upon in the vicinity of his pond. A large beech tree overhung the water, its branches almost touching the surface. Molly was standing a small distance from it. She had not drunk the water. She had, in fact, stopped several feet from the bank. Now she was waiting, one paw raised, her tail wagging uncertainly. Through the rushes, something blue was visible to the approaching men. Bobby Faraday was kneeling by the water’s edge, his upper body at a slight angle, as though he were trying to glimpse his reflection in the pool. There was a rope around his neck, attached to the trunk of the tree. He was swollen with gas, his face a reddish-purple, his features almost unrecognizable. “Ah, hell,” said Peyton. He wavered slightly, and Artie reached up and put his arm around his companion’s shoulder as the sun set behind them, and the wind blew, and the host bowed low in mourning.
The Whisperers PROLOGUE
War is a mythical happening . . . Where else in human experience, except in the throes of ardor . . . do we find ourselves transported to a mythical condition and the gods most real? James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War
BAGHDAD 16TH APRIL, 2003 It was Dr. Al-Daini who found the girl, abandoned in the long central corridor. She was buried beneath broken glass and shards of pottery, under discarded clothing, pieces of furniture, and old newspapers used as packing materials. She should have been rendered almost invisible amid the dust and the darkness, but Dr. Al-Daini had spent decades searching for girls such as she, and he picked her out where others might simply have passed over her. Only her head was exposed, her blue eyes open, her lips stained a faded red. He knelt beside her, and brushed some of the detritus from her. Outside, he could hear yelling, and the rumble of tanks changing position. Suddenly, bright light illuminated the hallway, and there were armed men shouting and giving orders, but they had come too late. Others like them had stood by while this had happened, their priorities lying elsewhere. They did not care about the girl, but Dr. AlDaini cared. He had recognized her immediately, because she had always been one of his favorites. Her beauty had captivated him from the ﬁrst moment he set eyes on her, and in the years that followed he had never failed to make time to spend a quiet moment or two with her during the day, to exchange a greeting or merely to stand with her and mirror her smile with one of his own. Perhaps she might still be saved, he thought, but as he carefully shifted wood and stone he recognized that there was little he could do for her now. Her body was shattered, broken into pieces in an act of desecration that made no sense to him. This was not accidental, but deliberate: he could see marks on the ﬂoor where booted feet had pounded upon her legs and arms, reducing them to fragments. Yet, somehow, her head had escaped the worst of the violence, and Dr. AlDaini could not decide if this rendered what had been visited upon her less awful, or more terrible. “Oh, little one,” he whispered, as he gently stroked her cheek, the ﬁrst time that he had touched her in ﬁfteen years. “What have they done to you? What have they done to us all?” He should have stayed. He should not have left her, should not have left any of them, but the Fedayeen had been battling the Americans near the Ministry of Information, the sounds of gunﬁre and explosions reaching them even as they sandbagged friezes and wrapped foam rubber around the statues, grateful that they had at least managed to transport some of the treasures to safety before the invasion commenced. The ﬁghting had then spread to the television station, less than a kilometer away, and to the central bus station at the other side of the complex, drawing
closer and closer to them. He had argued in favor of staying, for they had stockpiled food and water in the basement, but many of the others felt that the risks were too great. All but one of the guards had ﬂed, abandoning their weapons and their uniforms, and there were already black-garbed gunmen in the museum garden. So they had locked the front doors and left through the back entrance before ﬂeeing across the river to the eastern side, where they waited in the house of a colleague for the ﬁghting to cease. But it did not stop. When they attempted to return over the Bridge of the Medical City they were turned back, and so they stayed with their colleague once again, and drank coffee, and waited some more. Perhaps they had remained there for too long, debating back and forth the wisdom of abandoning what was, for now, a place of safety, but what else could they have done? Yet he could not forgive himself, or assuage his guilt. He had abandoned her, and they had had their way with her. And now he was crying, not from the dirt and ﬁlth but from rage and hurt and loss. He did not stop, not even as booted feet approached him and a soldier shone a ﬂashlight in his face. There were others behind him, their weapons raised. “Sir, who are you?” asked the soldier. Dr. Al-Daini did not reply. He could not. All his attention was ﬁxed on the eyes of the broken girl. “Sir, do you speak English? I’ll ask you one more time: who are you?” Dr. Al-Daini picked up on the nervousness in the soldier’s voice, but also the hint of arrogance, the natural superiority of the conqueror over the conquered. He sighed, and raised his eyes. “My name is Dr. Muﬁd Al-Daini,” he said, “and I am the Deputy Curator of Roman Antiquities at this museum.” Then he reconsidered. “No, I was the Deputy Curator of Roman Antiquities, but now there is no museum left. Now there are only fragments. You let this happen. You stood by and let this happen. . . .” But he was speaking as much to himself as he was to them, and the words turned to ash in his mouth. The staff had left the museum on Tuesday. On Saturday, they learned that the museum had been looted, and then began to return in an effort to assess the damage and prevent any further theft. Someone said that the looting had commenced as early as Thursday, when hundreds of people had gathered at the fence surrounding the museum. For two days, they were free to ransack. Already, there were rumors that insiders had been involved, some of the museum’s own guardians targeting the most valuable artifacts. The thieves took everything that could be moved, and much of what they could not take they attempted to destroy. Dr. Al-Daini and some others had gone to the headquarters of the Marines and pleaded for help in securing the building, for the staff was fearful that the looters would return, and the U.S. Army
tanks at the intersection only ﬁfty meters from the museum had refused to come to their aid, citing orders. They were eventually promised guards by the Americans, but only now, on Wednesday, had they come. Dr. Al-Daini had arrived just shortly before them, for he had been one of those assigned the role of liaison with the soldiers and the media, and he had spent the previous days being passed up and down the military ranks and providing contacts for journalists. Carefully, he raised the head of the broken girl, youthful yet ancient, the paint still visible on her hair and mouth and eyes after almost four thousand years. “Look,” he said, still weeping. “Look at what they did to her.” And the soldiers stared for a moment at this old man covered in white dust, a hollow head in his hands, before moving on to secure the looted halls of the Iraq Museum. They were young men, and this operation was about the future, not the past. No lives had been lost, not here. These things happened. After all, there was a war on. DR. AL-DAINI WATCHED THE soldiers go. He looked around and saw a swatch of paintspattered cloth lying by a fallen display case. He checked it and found it to be relatively clean, so he placed the head of the girl upon it, then wrapped the cloth carefully around her, tying a knot with the four corners so that he might more easily carry her. He stood wearily, the head now hanging from his left hand, like an executioner bearing to his potentate the evidence of the ax’s work, so lifelike was the girl’s expression, and so troubled and shocked was Dr Al-Daini, that he would not have been surprised had the severed neck begun to bleed through the material, casting red drops like petals upon the dusty ﬂoor. All around him were reminders of what had once been; absences like open wounds. Jewelry had been taken from skeletons, their bones scattered. Statues had been decapitated, so that the most striking aspect of them might more easily be carried away. Curious, he thought, that the girl’s head, exquisite as it was, should have been overlooked, or perhaps it was enough for whomever had broken her that her body was ruined, enough to have removed a little beauty from the world. The scale of the destruction was overwhelming. The Warka vase, a masterpiece of Sumerian art from about 3500 BC, and the world’s oldest carved stone ritual vessel was gone, hacked away from its base. A beautiful bull-headed lyre had been reduced to kindling as the gold was stripped from it. The Bassetki statue base: gone. The statue of Entema: gone. The Warka mask, the ﬁrst naturalistic sculpture of a human face: gone. He passed through room after room, replacing all that was lost with phantasms, ghosts of themselves—here, an ivory seal, there a bejewelled crown—so that what had once been was superimposed over the wreckage of the present. Even now, still near numb at the extent of the damage that had been done, Dr. Al-Daini was already cataloging the collection in his mind, trying to recall the age and provenance of each precious
relic in case the museum’s own records might no longer be available to them when they began the seemingly impossible task of recovering what had been taken. Relics. Dr. Al-Daini stopped walking. He swayed slightly, and his eyes closed. A soldier passing by asked him if he was okay and offered him water, a small gesture of kindness that Dr. Al-Daini was unable to acknowledge, so grave was his disquiet. Instead, he turned to the soldier and gripped his arms, a movement that might well have ended his troubles on the spot had the soldier in question had his ﬁ nger on the trigger of his gun. “I am Dr. Muﬁd Al-Daini,” he told the soldier. “I am a deputy curator here at the museum. Please, I need you to help me. I have to get to the basement. I must check something. It is very, very important. You must help me to get through.” He gestured at the shapes of the armed men ahead of them, beige ﬁgures in the darkened hallways. The young man before him looked doubtful, then shrugged. “You’ll have to let go of my shoulders ﬁrst, sir,” he said. He couldn’t have been more than twenty or twenty-one, but there was an assurance to him, an ease more appropriate to an older man. Dr. Al-Daini stepped back, apologizing for his presumption. The name on the soldier’s uniform read “Patchett.” “Do you have some identiﬁcation?” asked Patchett. Dr. Al-Daini found a museum badge, but the lettering was in Arabic. He searched in his wallet and found a business card, Arabic on one side, English on the other, and handed it across. Squinting slightly in the poor light, Patchett examined it, then returned it. “Okay, let’s see what we can do,” he said. DR. AL-DAINI HAD TWO titles in the museum. As well as being Deputy Curator of Roman Antiquities, a job description that did insufﬁcient justice to the depth and breadth of his knowledge or, indeed, the additional responsibilities that he had shouldered unofﬁcially and without remuneration, he was also the Curator of Uncataloged Items, another name that barely hinted at the extent of the Herculean labors involved. The museum’s inventory system was both ancient and complicated, and there were tens of thousands of items that had yet to be included. One part of the museum’s basement was a labyrinth of shelves piled high with artifacts, boxed and unboxed, most of them, or most of the tiny fraction that had been cataloged by Dr. Al-Daini and his predecessors, of little monetary value, yet each one a marker, a remnant of a civilization now changed beyond recognition, or departed utterly from this world. In many ways, this basement was Dr. Al-Daini’s favorite part of the museum, for who knew what might be
discovered here, what unsuspected treasures might be revealed? So far, in truth, he had found few indeed, and the trove of uncataloged items remained as great as it ever had, for with every shard of pottery, every fragment of a statue that was formally added to the museum’s records, ten more seemed to arrive, and so, as the body of what was known became greater, so too did the mass of the unknown. A lesser man might have regarded it as a fruitless task, but Dr. Al-Daini was a romantic when it came to knowledge, and the thought that the store of what remained to be discovered was forever increasing ﬁ lled him with joy. Now, ﬂashlight in hand, the soldier Patchett behind him with another light, Dr. Al-Daini passed through the canyons of the archives, his key redundant, for the door had been smashed open. The basement was stiﬂingly hot, and there was a sharp smell in the air left by the burning foam that the looters had used as torches, since the electricity had stopped working before the invasion, but Dr. Al-Daini barely noticed. His attention was ﬁxed on one spot, and one spot only. The looters had made their mark here too, overturning shelves, scattering the contents of boxes and crates, even setting ﬁre to records, but they must have realized quickly that there was little worthy of their attentions, and so the damage was less. Yet some items were clearly missing, and as Dr. AlDaini moved deeper into the basement, so his anxiety increased, until at last he came to the place that he had sought, and stared at the empty space on the shelf before him. He almost gave up then, but there was still some hope. “Something is missing,” he told Patchett. “I beg of you, help me to ﬁnd it.” “What are we looking for?” “A lead box. Not very big.” Dr. Al-Daini held his hands about two feet apart. “Plain, with a simple clasp and a small lock.” And so together they searched the unlocked areas of the basement as best they could, and when Patchett was recalled by his squad leader Dr. Al-Daini continued to look, all that day and into the night, but there was no sign of the lead box. If one wants to hide an item of great value, surrounding it with the worthless is a good way to do so. Better yet if one can swathe it in the poorest of garbs, disguising it so well that it can remain in plain sight and yet not attract even the slightest of glances. One might even catalog it as that which it is not: in this case, a lead casket, Persian, sixteenth century, containing a smaller, unremarkable sealed box, apparently made of iron painted red. Date: unknown. Provenance: unknown. Value: minimal. Contents: none. All lies, especially the last, for if one got close enough to that box within a box, one might almost have thought that something inside it was speaking.
No, not speaking. Whispering. CAPE ELIZABETH, MAINE MAY 2009 THE DOG HEARD THE call, and came warily to the top of the stairs. She had been sleeping on one of the beds, which she knew that she was not supposed to do. She listened, but picked up on nothing in the voice to suggest that she might be in trouble. When the call came again, and she heard the sound of her leash jangling, she took the stairs two at a time, almost falling over her own legs with excitement when she reached the bottom. Damien Patchett quieted the dog by raising his ﬁnger, and attached the leash to her collar. Although it was warm outside, he wore a green combat jacket. The dog sniffed at one of the pockets, recognizing a familiar scent, but Damien shooed her away. His father was over at the diner, and the house was quiet. The sun was about to set, and as Damien walked the dog through the woods toward the sea, the light began to change, the sky bleeding red and gold behind him. The dog bit at the leash, unused to being restricted in this way. Usually, she was given free roam on her walks, and she indicated her displeasure by tugging hard. She was not even allowed to stop and sniff scents, and when she tried to urinate she was dragged along, causing her to yelp unhappily. There was a nest of bald-faced hornets in a birch tree nearby, a gray construct now quiet, but in the daytime a buzzing mass of aggression. The dog had been stung earlier in the week when she went to investigate the tree’s sap lick, where a yellow-bellied sapsucker had cleared the bark to feed, leaving a useful source of sweetness for assorted insects, birds, and squirrels. She began to whine as they drew close to the birch, recalling her pain and desirous of giving its source a wide berth, but he calmed her by patting her and changing direction, easing her away from the site of her mishap. As a boy, Damien had been fascinated by bees, and wasps, and hornets. This colony had formed in the spring when the queen, roused from months of sleep after mating the previous fall, began to mix wood ﬁber with saliva, creating a pole of paper pulp to which she gradually added the hexagonal cells for her young: ﬁrst the females from the fertilized eggs, then the males from her virgin eggs. He had kept track of each stage of its development, just as he used to do when he was a boy. It was the aspect of female rule that he had always found most interesting, for he came from an old-fashioned family where the men made the decisions, or so he had always believed until, as he grew older, he began to recognize the inﬁnite subtle ways in which his mother, and his grandmothers, and various aunts and cousins, had manipulated the males to their satisfaction. Here, in this gray nest, the queen could be more open in her government, giving birth, creating defenders of the hive, feeding and being fed, even keeping her young warm by her own shivers, the warm air created by the actions of her body becoming trapped in a bell-shaped
chamber of her own creation. He stared back at the shape of the nest, almost invisible now among the leaves, as though reluctant to leave it. His sharp eyes picked out spider webs, and ants’ nests, and a green caterpillar scaling a bloodroot, and each creature gave him pause, and each sight he seemed to store away. They could smell the sea when Damien stopped. Had anyone been there to see him, it would have been clear that he was weeping. His face was contorted, and his shoulders convulsed with the force of his sobs. He looked round, right and left, as if expecting to glimpse presences moving between the trees, but there was only birdsong and the sound of waves breaking. The dog’s name was Sandy. She was a mutt, but more retriever than anything else. She was now ten years old, and she was as much Damien’s dog as his father’s, despite the son’s long absences, loving both equally just as they loved her. She could not understand her younger master’s behavior, for he was tolerant of her in ways that even his father was not. She wagged her tail uncertainly as he squatted beside her and tied her leash to the trunk of a sapling. Then he stood and removed the revolver from his pocket. It was a .38 Special, a Smith & Wesson Model 10. He had bought it from a dealer who claimed that it had come from a Vietnam vet who was down on his luck, but who Damien subsequently discovered had sold it to feed the cocaine habit that had eventually claimed his life. Damien put his hands to his ears, the gun in his right hand now pointing to the sky. He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. “Please, please stop,” he said. “I’m begging you. Please.” His mouth curled down, snot running from his nose, as he removed his hands from his head and, trembling, pointed the gun at the dog. It was inches from her muzzle. She leaned forward and sniffed it. She was used to the smell of oil and powder, for Damien and his father had often taken her to hunt birds with them, and she would bring back the bodies in her jaws. She wagged her tail expectantly, anticipating the game. “No,” said Damien. “No, don’t make me do it. Please don’t.” His ﬁnger tightened on the trigger. His whole arm was shaking. With a great effort of will, he turned the gun away from the dog, and screamed at the sea, and the air, and the setting sun. He gritted his teeth and freed the dog from her leash. “Go!” he shouted at her. “Go home! Sandy, go home!” The dog’s tail went between her legs, but it was still wagging slightly. She didn’t want to leave. She sensed that something was very wrong. Then Damien ran at her, aiming a kick at her behind but pulling it at the last minute so that it made no contact. Now the dog ﬂ ed, retreating toward
the house. She paused while Damien was still in sight of her, but he came at her again, and this time she kept going, stopping only when she heard the gunshot. She cocked her head, then slowly began to retrace her steps, anxious to see what her master had brought down.
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