Black House Chapter Nine
NOT MANY HOURS later, Jack finds himself walking down the midway of a deserted amusement park under a gray autumn sky. On either side of him are boarded-over concessions: the Fenway Franks hot dog stand, the Annie Oakley Shooting Gallery, the Pitch-Til-U-Win. Rain has fallen and more is coming; the air is sharp with moisture. Not far away, he can hear the lonely thunder of waves hurling themselves against a deserted shingle of beach. From closer by comes the snappy sound of guitar picking. It should be cheerful, but to Jack it is dread set to music. He shouldn’t be here. This is an old place, a dangerous place. He passes a boarded-up ride. A sign out front reads: THE SPEEDY OPOPANAX WILL RE-
OPEN MEMORIAL DAY 1982 ?? SEE YA THEN!
Opopanax, Jack thinks, only he is no longer Jack; now he’s Jacky. He’s Jacky-boy, and he and his mother are on the run. From whom? From Sloat, of course. From hustlin’, bustlin’ Uncle Morgan.
Speedy, Jack thinks, and as if he has given a telepathic cue, a warm, slightly slurry voice begins to sing. “When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbin’ along, / There’ll be no more sobbin’ when he starts throbbin’ his old sweet song . . .”
No, Jack thinks. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to hear your old sweet song. You can’t be here anyway, you’re dead. Dead on the Santa Monica Pier. Old bald black man dead in the shadow of a frozen merry-go-round horse.
Oh, but no. When the old cop logic comes back it takes hold like a tumor, even in dreams, and it doesn’t take much of it to realize that this isn’t Santa Monica ?? it’s too cold and too old. This is the land of ago, when Jacky and the Queen of the B’s fled out of California like the fugitives they had become. And didn’t stop running until they got to the other coast, the place where Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer ??
No, I don’t think of this, I never think of this
?? had come to die.
“Wake up, wake up you sleepyhead!”
The voice of his old friend.
Friend, my ass. He’s the one who put me on the road of trials, the one who came between me and Richard, my real friend. He’s the one who almost got me killed, almost drove me crazy.
“Wake up, wake up, get out of bed!”
Way-gup, way-gup, way-gup. Time to face the fearsome opopanax. Time to get back to your not-so-sweet used-to-be.
“No,” Jacky whispers, and then the midway ends. Ahead is the carousel, sort of like the one on the Santa Monica Pier and sort of like the one he remembers from . . . well, from ago. It is a hybrid, in other words, a dream specialty, neither here nor there. But there’s no mistaking the man who sits beneath one of the frozen rearing horses with his guitar on his knee. Jacky-boy would know that face anywhere, and all the old love rises in his heart. He fights it, but that is a fight few people win, especially not those who have been turned back to the age of twelve.
“Speedy!” he cries.
The old man looks at him and his brown face cracks open in a smile. “Travelin’ Jack!” he says. “How I have missed you, son.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” he says. “But I don’t travel anymore. I’ve settled down in Wisconsin. This . . .” He gestures at his magically restored boy’s body, clad in jeans and a T-shirt. “This is just a dream.”
“Maybe so, maybe not. In any case, you got a mite more traveling to do, Jack. I been telling you that for some time.”
“What do you mean?”
Speedy’s grin is sly in the middle, exasperated at the corners. “Don’t play the fool with me, Jacky. Sent you the feathers, didn’t I? Sent you a robin’s egg, didn’t I? Sent you more’n one.”
“Why can’t people leave me alone?” Jack asks. His voice is suspiciously close to a whine. Not a pretty sound. “You . . . Henry . . . Dale . . .”
“Quit on it now,” Speedy says, growing stern. “Ain’t got no more time to ask you nice. The game has gotten rough. Ain’t it?”
“Speedy ?? “
“You got your job and I got mine. Same job, too. Don’t you whine at me, Jack, and don’t make me chase you no mo’. You’re a coppice-man, same as ever was.”
“I’m retired ?? “
“Shit on your retired! The kids he killed, that’s bad enough. The kids he might kill if he’s let to go on, that’s worse. But the one he’s got . . .” Speedy leans forward, dark eyes blazing in his dark face. “That boy has got to be brought back, and soon. If you can’t get him back, you got to kill him yourself, little as I like to think of it. Because he’s a Breaker. A powerful one. One more might be all he needs to take it down.”
“Who might need?” Jack asks.
“The Crimson King.”
“And what is it this Crimson King wants to take down?”
Speedy looks at him a moment, then starts to play that perky tune again instead of answering. “There’ll be no more sobbin’ when he starts throbbin’ his old sweet song . . .”
“Speedy, I can’t!”
The tune ends in a discordant jangle of strings. Speedy looks at twelve-year-old Jack Sawyer with a coldness that chills the boy inward all the way to the hidden man’s heart. And when he speaks again, Speedy Parker’s faint southern accent has deepened. It has filled with a contempt that is almost liquid.
“You get busy now, hear me? Y’all quit whinin’ and cryin’ and slackin’ off. Y’all pick up yo’ guts from wherever you left ’em and get busy!”
Jack steps back. A heavy hand falls on his shoulder and he thinks, It’s Uncle Morgan. Him or maybe Sunlight Gardener. It’s 1981 and I’ve got to do it all over again ??
But that is a boy’s thought, and this is a man’s dream. Jack Sawyer as he is now thrusts the child’s acquiescing despair away. No, not at all. I deny that. I have put those faces and those places aside. It was hard work, and I won’t see it all undone by a few phantom feathers, a few phantom eggs, and one bad dream. Find yourself another boy, Speedy. This one grew up.
He turns, ready to fight, but no one’s there. Lying behind him on the boardwalk, on its side like a dead pony, is a boy’s bicycle. There’s a license plate on the back reading BIG MAC. Scattered around it are shiny crow’s feathers. And now Jack hears another voice, cold and cracked, ugly and unmistakably evil. He knows it’s the voice of the thing that touched him.
“That’s right, asswipe. Stay out of it. You mess with me and I’ll strew your guts from Racine to La Riviere.”
A spinning hole opens in the boardwalk just in front of the bike. It widens like a startled eye. It continues to widen, and Jack dives for it. It’s the way back. The way out. The contemptuous voice follows him.
“That’s right, jackoff,” it says. “Run! Run from the abbalah! Run from the King! Run for your miserable fucking life!” The voice dissolves into laughter, and it is the mad sound of that laughter which follows Jack Sawyer down into the darkness between worlds.
Hours later, Jack stands naked at his bedroom window, absently scratching his ass and watching the sky lighten in the east. He’s been awake since four. He can’t remember much of his dream (his defenses may be bending, but even now they have not quite broken), yet enough of it lingers for him to be sure of one thing: the corpse on the Santa Monica Pier upset him so badly that he quit his job because it reminded him of someone he once knew.
“All of that never happened,” he tells the coming day in a falsely patient voice. “I had a kind of preadolescent breakdown, brought on by stress. My mother thought she had cancer, she grabbed me, and we ran all the way to the East Coast. All the way to New Hampshire. She thought she was going back to the Great Happy Place to die. Turned out to be mostly vapors, some goddamn actress midlife crisis, but what does a kid know? I was stressed. I had dreams.”
“I dreamed I saved my mother’s life.”
The phone behind him rings, the sound shrill and broken in the shadowy room.
Jack Sawyer screams.
“I woke you up,” Fred Marshall says, and Jack knows at once that this man has been up all night, sitting in his wifeless, sonless home. Looking at photo albums, perhaps, while the TV plays. Knowing he is rubbing salt into the wounds but unable to quit.
“No,” Jack says, “actually I was ?? “
He stops. The phone’s beside the bed and there’s a pad beside the phone. There’s a note written on the pad. Jack must have written it, since he’s the only one here ?? ella-fucking-ment’ry, my dear Watson ?? but it isn’t in his handwriting. At some point in his dream, he wrote this note in his dead mother’s handwriting.
The Tower. The Beams. If the Beams are broken, Jacky-boy, if the Beams are broken and the Tower falls
There’s no more. There is only poor old Fred Marshall, who has discovered how quickly things can go bad in the sunniest midwestern life. Jack’s mouth has attempted to say a couple of things while his mind is occupied with this forgery from his subconscious, probably not very sensible things, but that doesn’t bother Fred; he simply goes droning along with none of the stops and drops that folks usually employ to indicate the ends of sentences or changes of thought. Fred is just getting it out, unloading, and even in his own distressed state Jack realizes that Fred Marshall of 16 Robin Hood Lane, that sweet little Cape Cod honey of a home, is nearing the edge of his endurance. If things don’t turn around for him soon, he won’t need to visit his wife in Ward D of French County Lutheran; they’ll be roommates.
And it is their proposed visit to Judy of which Fred is speaking, Jack realizes. He quits trying to interrupt and simply listens, frowning down at the note he has written to himself as he does so. Tower and Beams. What kind of beams? Sunbeams? Hornbeams? Raise high the roof beam, carpenters?
” ?? know I said I’d pick you up at nine but Dr. Spiegleman that’s her doctor up there Spiegleman his name is he said she had a very bad night with a lot of yelling and screaming and then trying to get up the wall-paper and eat it and maybe a seizure of some kind so they’re trying her on a new medication he might have said Pamizene or Patizone I didn’t write it down Spiegleman called me fifteen minutes ago I wonder if those guys ever sleep and said we should be able to see her around four he thinks she’ll be more stabilized by four and we could see her then so could I pick you up at three or maybe you have ?? “
“Three would be fine,” Jack says quietly.
” ?? other stuff to do other plans I’d understand that but I could come by if you don’t it’s mostly that I don’t want to go alone ?? “
“I’ll be waiting for you,” Jack said. “We’ll go in my pickup.”
” ?? thought maybe I’d hear from Ty or from whoever snatched him like maybe a ransom demand but no one called only Spiegleman he’s my wife’s doctor up there at ?? “
“Fred, I’m going to find your boy.”
Jack is appalled at this bald assurance, at the suicidal confidence he hears in his own voice, but it serves at least one purpose: bringing Fred’s flood of dead words to an end. There is blessed silence from the other end of the line.
At last, Fred speaks in a trembling whisper. “Oh, sir. If only I could believe that.”
“I want you to try,” Jack says. “And maybe we can find your wife’s mind while we’re at it.”
Maybe both are in the same place, he thinks, but this he does not say.
Liquid sounds come from the other end of the line. Fred has begun to cry.
“You’re coming to my place at three.”
“Yes.” A mighty sniff; a miserable cry that is mostly choked back. Jack has some comprehension of how empty Fred Marshall’s house must feel at this moment, and even that dim understanding is bad enough.
“My place in Norway Valley. Come past Roy’s Store, over Tamarack Creek ?? “
“I know where it is.” A faint edge of impatience has crept into Fred’s voice. Jack is very glad to hear it.
“Good. I’ll see you.”
“You bet.” Jack hears a ghost of Fred’s salesman cheer, and it twists his heart.
“Th-three?” Then, with marginal assurance: “Three.”
“That’s right. We’ll take my truck. Maybe have a bite of supper at Gertie’s Kitchen on our way back. Good-bye, Fred.”
“Good-bye, sir. And thank you.”
Jack hangs up the phone. Looks a moment longer at his memory’s reproduction of his mother’s handwriting and wonders what you’d call such a thing in cop-speak. Autoforgery? He snorts, then crumples the note up and starts getting dressed. He will drink a glass of juice, then go out walking for an hour or so. Blow all the bad dreams out of his head. And blow away the sound of Fred Marshall’s awful droning voice while he’s at it. Then, after a shower, he might or might not call Dale Gilbertson and ask if there have been any developments. If he’s really going to get involved in this, there’ll be a lot of paperwork to catch up on . . . he’ll want to reinterview the parents . . . take a look at the old folks’ home close to where the Marshall kid disappeared . . .
With his mind full of such thoughts ( pleasant thoughts, actually, although if this had been suggested to him, he would have strenuously denied it), Jack almost stumbles over the box sitting on the welcome mat just outside his front door. It’s where Buck Evitz, the postman, leaves packages when he has packages to leave, but it’s not gone six-thirty yet, and Buck won’t be along in his little blue truck for another three hours.
Jack bends down and cautiously picks the package up. It’s the size of a shoe box, covered with brown paper that has been cut raggedly and secured not with tape but with big drools of red sealing wax. In addition to this, there are complicated loops of white string secured with a child’s oversized bow. There’s a cluster of stamps in the upper corner, ten or a dozen, featuring various birds. (No robins, however; Jack notes this with understandable relief.) There’s something not right about those stamps, but at first Jack doesn’t see what it is. He’s too focused on the address, which is spectacularly not right. There’s no box number, no RFD number, no zip code. No name, not really. The address consists of a single word, scrawled in large capital letters:
J A C K Y
Looking at those bedraggled letters, Jack imagines a fisted hand clutching a Sharpie marker; narrowed eyes; a tongue poked from the corner of some lunatic’s mouth. His heartbeat has sped up to double-time. “I’m not liking this,” he breathes. “I am so not liking this.”
And of course there are perfectly good reasons, coppiceman reasons, not to. It is a shoe box; he can feel the edge of the top right through the brown paper, and nutters have been known to put bombs in shoe boxes. He’d be crazy to open it, but he has an idea he will open it, just the same. If it blows him sky-high, at least he’ll be able to opt out of the Fisherman investigation.
Jack raises the package to listen for ticking, fully aware that ticking bombs are as out-of-date as Betty Boop cartoons. He hears nothing, but he does see what’s wrong with the stamps, which aren’t stamps at all. Someone has carefully cut the front panels from a dozen or so cafeteria sugar packets and taped them to this wrapped shoe box. A grunt of humorless laughter escapes Jack. Some nut sent him this, all right. Some nut in a locked facility, with easier access to sugar packets than to stamps. But how has it gotten here? Who left it (with the fake stamps uncanceled) while he was dreaming his confused dreams? And who, in this part of the world, could possibly know him as Jacky? His Jacky days are long gone.
No they ain’t, Travelin’ Jack, a voice whispers. Not by half. Time to stop your sobbin’ and get bob-bob-bobbin’ along, boy. Start by seein’ what’s in that box.
Resolutely ignoring his own mental voice, which tells him he’s being dangerously stupid, Jack snaps the twine and uses his thumbnail to cut through the sloppy blobs of red wax. Who uses sealing wax in this day and age, anyway? He sets the wrapping paper aside. Something else for the forensics boys, maybe.
It isn’t a shoe box but a sneaker box. A New Balance sneaker box, to be exact. Size 5. A child’s size. And at that, Jack’s heart speeds up to triple-time. He feels beads of cold sweat springing up on his forehead. His gorge and sphincter are both tightening up. This is also familiar. It is how coppicemen get cocked and locked, ready to look at something awful. And this will be awful. Jack has no doubt about it, and no doubt about who the package is from.
This is my last chance to back out, he thinks. After this it’s all aboard and heigh-ho for the . . . the wherever.
But even that is a lie, he realizes. Dale will be looking for him at the police station on Sumner Street by noon. Fred Marshall is coming to Jack’s place at three o’clock and they are going to see the Mad Housewife of Robin Hood Lane. The backout point has already come and gone. Jack still isn’t sure how it happened, but it looks like he’s back in harness. And if Henry Leyden has the temerity to congratulate him on this, Jack thinks, he’ll probably kick Henry’s blind ass for him.
A voice from his dream whispers up from beneath the floorboards of Jack’s consciousness like a whiff of rotten air ?? I’ll strew your guts from Racine to La Riviere ?? but this bothers him less than the madness inherent in the sugar-pack stamps and the laboriously printed letters of his old nickname. He has dealt with crazies before. Not to mention his share of threats.
He sits down on the steps with the sneaker box on his thighs. Beyond him, in the north field, all is still and gray. Bunny Boettcher, son of Tom Tom, came and did the second cutting only a week ago, and now a fine mist hangs above the ankle-high stubble. Above it, the sky has just begun to brighten. Not a single cloud as yet marks its calm no-color. Somewhere a bird calls out. Jack breathes deeply and thinks, If this is where I go out, I could do worse. A lot worse.
Then, very carefully, he takes the lid off the box and sets it aside. Nothing explodes. But it looks as if someone has filled the New Balance sneaker box with night. Then he realizes that it’s been packed with shiny black crow feathers, and his arms roughen with goose bumps.
He reaches toward them, then hesitates. He wants to touch those feathers about as much as he’d want to touch the corpse of a half-decayed plague victim, but there’s something beneath them. He can see it. Should he get some gloves? There are gloves in the front hall closet ??
“Fuck the gloves,” Jack says, and dumps the box onto the brown paper wrapping lying beside him on the porch. There’s a flood of feathers, which swirl a bit even in the perfectly still morning air. Then a thump as the object around which the feathers were packed lands on Jack’s porch. The smell hits Jack’s nose a moment later, an odor like rotting baloney.
Someone has delivered a child’s bloodstained sneaker chez Sawyer on Norway Valley Road. Something has gnawed at it pretty briskly, and even more briskly at what’s inside it. He sees a lining of bloody white cotton ?? that would be a sock. And inside the sock, tatters of skin. This is a child’s New Balance sneaker with a child’s foot inside it, one that has been badly used by some animal.
He sent it, Jack thinks. The Fisherman.
Taunting him. Telling him If you want in, come on in. The water’s fine, Jacky-boy, the water is fine.
Jack gets up. His heart is hammering, the beats now too close together to count. The beads of sweat on his forehead have swelled and broken and gone running down his face like tears, his lips and hands and feet are numb . . . yet he tells himself he is calm. That he has seen worse, much worse, piled up against bridge abutments and freeway underpasses in L.A. Nor is this his first severed body part. Once, in 1997, he and his partner Kirby Tessier found a single testicle sitting on top of a toilet tank in the Culver City public library like an ancient soft-boiled egg. So he tells himself he is calm.
He gets up and walks down the porch steps. He walks past the hood of his burgundy-colored Dodge Ram with the world-class sound system inside; he walks past the bird hotel he and Dale put up at the edge of the north field a month or two after Jack moved into this, the most perfect house in the universe. He tells himself he is calm. He tells himself that it’s evidence, that’s all. Just one more loop in the hangman’s noose that the Fisherman will eventually put around his own neck. He tells himself not to think of it as part of a kid, part of a little girl named Irma, but as Exhibit A. He can feel dew wetting his sockless ankles and the cuffs of his pants, knows that any sort of extended stroll through the hay stubble is going to ruin a five-hundred-dollar pair of Gucci loafers. And so what if it does? He’s rich well beyond the point of vulgarity; he can have as many shoes as Imelda Marcos, if he wants. The important thing is he’s calm. Someone brought him a shoe box with a human foot inside it, laid it on his porch in the dark of night, but he’s calm. It’s evidence, that’s all. And he? He is a coppiceman. Evidence is his meat and drink. He just needs to get a little air, needs to clear his nose of the rotted baloney smell that came puffing out of the box ??
Jack makes a strangled gagging, urking sound and begins to hurry on a little faster. There is a sense of approaching climax growing in his mind (my calm mind, he tells himself ). Something is getting ready to break . . . or change . . . or change back.
That last idea is particularly alarming and Jack begins to run across the field, knees lifting higher, arms pumping. His passage draws a dark line through the stubble, a diagonal that starts at the driveway and might end anywhere. Canada, maybe. Or the North Pole. White moths, startled out of their dew-heavy morning doze, flutter up in lacy swirls and then slump back into the cut stubble.
He runs faster, away from the chewed and bloody sneaker lying on the porch of the perfect house, away from his own horror. But that sense of coming climax stays with him. Faces begin to rise in his mind, each with its own accompanying snippet of sound track. Faces and voices he has ignored for twenty years or more. When these faces rise or those voices mutter, he has until now told himself the old lie, that once there was a frightened boy who caught his mother’s neurotic terror like a cold and made up a story, a grand fantasy with good old Mom-saving Jack Sawyer at its center. None of it was real, and it was forgotten by the time he was sixteen. By then he was calm. Just as he’s calm now, running across his north field like a lunatic, leaving that dark track and those clouds of startled moths behind him, but doing it calmly.
Narrow face, narrow eyes under a tilted white paper cap: If you can run me out a keg when I need one, you can have the job. Smokey Updike, from Oatley, New York, where they drank the beer and then ate the glass. Oatley, where there’d been something in the tunnel outside of town and where Smokey had kept him prisoner. Until ??
Prying eyes, false smile, brilliant white suit: I’ve met you before, Jack . . . where? Tell me. Confess. Sunlight Gardener, an Indiana preacher whose name had also been Osmond. Osmond in some other world.
The broad, hairy face and frightened eyes of a boy who wasn’t a boy at all: This is a bad place, Jacky, Wolf knows. And it was, it was a very bad place. They put him in a box, put good old Wolf in a box, and finally they killed him. Wolf died of a disease called America.
“Wolf!” the running man in the field gasps. “Wolf, ah, God, I’m sorry!”
Faces and voices, all those faces and voices, rising in front of his eyes, dinning into his ears, demanding to be seen and heard, filling him with that sense of climax, every defense on the verge of being washed away like a breakwater before a tidal wave.
Nausea roars through him and tilts the world. He makes that urking sound again, and this time it fills the back of his throat with a taste he remembers: the taste of cheap, rough wine. And suddenly it’s New Hampshire again, Arcadia Funworld again. He and Speedy are standing beside the carousel again, all those frozen horses (“All carousel horses is named, don’t you know that, Jack?”), and Speedy is holding out a bottle of wine and telling him it’s magic juice, one little sip and he’ll go over, flip over ??
“No!” Jack cries, knowing it’s already too late. “I don’t want to go over!”
The world tilts the other way and he falls into the grass on his hands and knees with his eyes squeezed shut. He doesn’t need to open them; the richer, deeper smells that suddenly fill his nose tell him everything he needs to know. That, and the sense of coming home after so many dark years when almost every waking motion and decision has in some way been dedicated to canceling (or at least postponing) the arrival of this very moment.
This is Jack Sawyer, ladies and gentlemen, down on his knees in a vast field of sweet grass under a morning sky untainted by a single particle of pollution. He is weeping. He knows what has happened, and he is weeping. His heart bursts with fear and joy.
This is Jack Sawyer twenty years along, grown to be a man, and back in the Territories again at last.
It is the voice of his old friend Richard ?? sometimes known as Rational Richard ?? that saves him. Richard as he is now, head of his own law firm (Sloat & Associates, Ltd.), not Richard as he was when Jack perhaps knew him best, during long vacation days on Seabrook Island, in South Carolina. The Richard of Seabrook Island had been imaginative, quick-spoken, fast on his feet, mop-topped, skinny as a morning shadow. The current Richard, Corporate Law Richard, is thinning on top, thick in the middle, much in favor of sitting and Bushmills. Also, he has crushed his imagination, so brilliantly playful in those Seabrook Island days, like a troublesome fly. Richard Sloat’s life has been one of reduction, Jack has sometimes thought, but one thing has been added (probably in law school): the pompous, sheeplike sound of hesitation, particularly annoying on the phone, which is now Richard’s vocal signature. This sound starts with the lips closed, then opens out as Richard’s lips spring wide, making him look like an absurd combination of Vienna choirboy and Lord Haw-Haw.
Now, kneeling with his eyes shut in the vast green reach of what used to be his very own north field, smelling the new, deeper smells that he remembers so well and has longed for so fiercely without even realizing it, Jack hears Richard Sloat begin speaking in the middle of his head. What a relief those words are! He knows it’s only his own mind mimicking Richard’s voice, but it’s still wonderful. If Richard were here, Jack thinks he’d embrace his old friend and say, May you pontificate forever, Richie-boy. Sheep bray and all.
Rational Richard says: You realize you’re dreaming, Jack, don’t you? . . . ba-haaaa . . . the stress of opening that package no doubt . . . ba-haaaa . . . no doubt caused you to pass out, and that in turn has caused . . . ba-HAAAA! . . . the dream you are having now.
Down on his knees, eyes still closed and hair hanging in his face, Jack says, “In other words, it’s what we used to call ?? “
Correct! What we used to call . . . ba-haaaa . . . “Seabrook Island stuff.” But Seabrook Island was a long time ago, Jack, so I suggest you open your eyes, get back on your feet, and remind yourself that should you see anything out of the ordinary . . . b’haa! . . . it’s not really there.
“Not really there,” Jack murmurs. He stands up and opens his eyes.
He knows from the very first look that it is really here, but he holds Richard’s pompous I-look-thirty-five-but-I’m-really-sixty voice in his head, shielding himself with it. Thus he is able to maintain a precarious balance instead of passing out for real, or ?? perhaps ?? cracking up entirely.
Above him, the sky is an infinitely clear dark blue. Around him, the hay and timothy is rib-high instead of ankle-high; there has been no Bunny Boettcher in this part of creation to cut it. In fact, there is no house back the way he came, only a picturesque old barn with a windmill standing off to one side.
Where are the flying men? Jack thinks, looking up into the sky, then shakes his head briskly. No flying men; no two-headed parrots; no werewolves. All that was Seabrook Island stuff, a neurosis he picked up from his mother and even passed on to Richard for a while. It was all nothing but . . . ba-haaa . . . bullshit.
He accepts this, knowing at the same time that the real bullshit would be not believing what’s all around him. The smell of the grass, now so strong and sweet, mixed with the more flowery smell of clover and the deeper, basso profundo smell of black earth. The endless sound of the crickets in this grass, living their unthinking cricket lives. The fluttering white field moths. The unblemished cheek of the sky, not marked by a single telephone wire or electrical cable or jet contrail.
What strikes Jack most deeply, however, is the perfection of the field around him. There’s a matted circle where he fell on his knees, the dew-heavy grass crushed to the ground. But there is no path leading to the circle, not a mark of passage through the wet and tender grass. He might have dropped out of the sky. That’s impossible, of course, more Seabrook Island stuff, but ??
“I did sort of fall out of the sky, though,” Jack says in a remarkably steady voice. “I came here from Wisconsin. I flipped here.”
Richard’s voice protests this strenuously, exploding in a flurry of hrrumphs and ba-haaas, but Jack hardly notices. It’s just good old Rational Richard, doing his Rational Richard thing inside his head. Richard had lived through stuff like this once before and come out the other side with his mind more or less intact . . . but he’d been twelve. They’d both been twelve that fall, and when you’re twelve, the mind and body are more elastic.
Jack has been turning in a slow circle, seeing nothing but open fields (the mist over them now fading to a faint haze in the day’s growing warmth) and blue-gray woods beyond them. Now there’s something else. To the southwest, there’s a dirt road about a mile away. Beyond it, at the horizon or perhaps just beyond, the perfect summer sky is a little stained with smoke.
Not woodstoves, Jack thinks, not in July, but maybe small manufactories. And . . .
He hears a whistle ?? three long blasts made faint with distance. His heart seems to grow large in his chest, and the corners of his mouth stretch up in a kind of helpless grin.
“The Mississippi’s that way, by God,” he says, and around him the field moths seem to dance their agreement, lace of the morning. “That’s the Mississippi, or whatever they call it over here. And the whistle, friends and neighbors ?? “
Two more blasts roll across the making summer day. They are faint with distance, yes, but up close they would be mighty. Jack knows this.
“That’s a riverboat. A damn big one. Maybe a paddle wheeler.”
Jack begins to walk toward the road, telling himself that this is all a dream, not believing a bit of that but using it as an acrobat uses his balance pole. After he’s gone a hundred yards or so, he turns and looks back. A dark line cuts through the timothy, beginning at the place where he landed and cutting straight to where he is. It is the mark of his passage. The only mark of it. Far to the left (in fact almost behind him now) are the barn and the windmill. That’s my house and garage, Jack thinks. At least that’s what they are in the world of Chevrolets, Mideast warfare, and the Oprah Winfrey show.
He walks on, and has almost reached the road when he realizes there is more than smoke in the southwest. There is a kind of vibration, as well. It beats into his head like the start of a migraine headache. And it’s strangely variable. If he stands with his face pointed dead south, that unpleasant pulse is less. Turn east and it’s gone. North and it’s almost gone. Then, as he continues to turn, it comes all the way back to full. Worse than ever now that he’s noticed it, the way the buzz of a fly or the knock of a radiator in a hotel room is worse after you really start to notice it.
Jack turns another slow, full circle. South, and the vibration sinks. East, it’s gone. North, it’s starting to come back. West, it’s coming on strong. Southwest and he’s locked in like the SEEK button on a car radio. Pow, pow, pow. A black and nasty vibration like a headache, a smell like ancient smoke . . .
“No, no, no, not smoke,” Jack says. He’s standing almost up to his chest in summer grass, pants soaked, white moths flittering around his head like a half-assed halo, eyes wide, cheeks once more pale. In this moment he looks twelve again. It is eerie how he has rejoined his younger (and perhaps better) self. “Not smoke, that smells like . . .”
He suddenly makes that urking sound again. Because the smell ?? not in his nose but in the center of his head ?? is rotted baloney. The smell of Irma Freneau’s half-rotted, severed foot.
“I’m smelling him,” Jack whispers, knowing it’s not a smell he means. He can make that pulse whatever he wants . . . including, he realizes, gone. “I’m smelling the Fisherman. Either him or . . . I don’t know.”
He starts walking, and a hundred yards later he stops again. The pulse in his head is indeed gone. It has faded out the way radio stations do when the day warms and the temperature thickens. It’s a relief.
Jack has almost reached the road, which no doubt leads one way to some version of Arden and the other way to versions of Centralia and French Landing, when he hears an irregular drumming sound. He feels it as well, running up his legs like a Gene Krupa backbeat.
He turns to the left, then shouts in mingled surprise and delight. Three enormous brown creatures with long, lolloping ears go leaping past Jack’s position, rising above the grass, sinking back into it, then rising above it again. They look like rabbits crossed with kangaroos. Their protruding black eyes stare with comic terror. Across the road they go, their flat feet (white-furred instead of brown) slapping up dust.
“Christ!” Jack says, half-laughing and half-sobbing. He whacks himself in the center of his forehead with the heel of his palm. “What was that, Richie-boy? Got any comments on that?”
Richie, of course does. He tells Jack that Jack has just suffered an extremely vivid . . . ba-haaa! . . . hallucination.
“Of course,” Jack says. “Giant bunny rabbits. Get me to the nearest A.A. meeting.” Then, as he steps out onto the road, he looks toward the southwestern horizon again. At the haze of smoke there. A village. And do the residents fear as the shadows of the evening come on? Fear the coming of the night? Fear the creature that is taking their children? Do they need a coppiceman? Of course they do. Of course they ??
Something is lying on the road. Jack bends down and picks up a Mil-waukee Brewers baseball cap, jarringly out of place in this world of giant hopping range rabbits, but indubitably real. Judging from the plastic adjustment band in the back, it’s a child’s baseball cap. Jack looks inside, knowing what he’ll find, and there it is, carefully inked on the bill: TY MARSHALL. The cap’s not as wet as Jack’s jeans, which are soaked with morning dew, but it’s not dry, either. It has been lying here on the edge of the road, he thinks, since yesterday. The logical assumption would be that Ty’s abductor brought Ty this way, but Jack doesn’t believe that. Perhaps it is the lingering pulse of vibration that gives rise to a different thought, a different image: the Fisherman, with Ty carefully stashed away, walking out this dirt road. Under his arm is a wrapped shoe box decorated with bogus stamps. On his head is Ty’s baseball hat, kind of balancing there because it’s really too small for the Fisherman. Still, he doesn’t want to change the adjustment band. Doesn’t want Jack to mistake it for a man’s cap, even for a single second. Because he is teasing Jack, inviting Jack into the game.
“Took the boy in our world,” Jack mutters. “Escaped with him to this world. Stashed him someplace safe, like a spider stashing a fly. Alive? Dead? Alive, I think. Don’t know why. Maybe it’s just what I want to believe. Leave it. Then he went to wherever he stashed Irma. Took her foot and brought it to me. Brought it through this world, then flipped back to my world to leave it on the porch. Lost the hat on the way, maybe? Lost it off his head?”
Jack doesn’t think so. Jack thinks this fuck, this skell, this world-hopping dirtbag, left the cap on purpose. Knew that if Jack walked this road he’d find it.
Holding the hat to his chest like a Miller Park fan showing respect to the flag during the national anthem, Jack closes his eyes and concentrates. It’s easier than he would have expected, but he supposes some things you never forget ?? how to peel an orange, how to ride a bike, how to flip back and forth between worlds.
Boy like you don’t need no cheap wine, anyhow, he hears his old friend Speedy Parker say, and there’s the edge of a laugh in Speedy’s voice. At the same time, that sense of vertigo twists through Jack again. A moment later he hears the alarming sound of an oncoming car.
He steps back, opening his eyes as he does so. Catches a glimpse of a tarred road ?? Norway Valley Road, but ??
A horn blares and a dusty old Ford slams by him, the passenger side-view mirror less than nine inches from Jack Sawyer’s nose. Warm air, once again filled with the faint but pungent odor of hydrocarbons, surfs over Jack’s cheeks and brow, along with some farm kid’s indignant voice:
” ?? hell out of the road, assshollle ?? “
“Resent being called an asshole by some cow-college graduate,” Jack says in his best Rational Richard voice, and although he adds a pompous Ba-haaa! for good measure, his heart is pumping hard. Man, he’d almost flipped back right in front of that guy!
Please, Jack, spare me, Richard said. You dreamed the whole thing.
Jack knows better. Although he looks around himself in total amazement, the core of his heart isn’t amazed at all, no, not even a little bit. He still has the cap, for one thing ?? Ty Marshall’s Brewers cap. And for another, the bridge across Tamarack Creek is just over the next rise. In the other world, the one where giant rabbits went hopping past you, he has walked maybe a mile. In this one he’s come at least four.
That’s the way it was before, he thinks, that’s the way it was when Jacky was six. When everybody lived in California and nobody lived anywhere else.
But that’s wrong. Somehow wrong.
Jack stands at the side of the road that was dirt a few seconds ago and is tarred now, stands looking down into Ty Marshall’s baseball cap and trying to figure out exactly what is wrong and how it’s wrong, knowing he probably won’t be able to turn the trick. All that was a long time ago, and besides, he’s worked at burying his admittedly bizarre childhood memories since he was thirteen. More than half his life, in other words. A person can’t dedicate that much time to forgetting, then suddenly just snap his fingers and expect ??
Jack snaps his fingers. Says to the warming summer morning: “What happened when Jacky was six?” And answers his own question: “When Jacky was six, Daddy played the horn.”
What does that mean?
“Not Daddy,” Jack says suddenly. “Not my daddy. Dexter Gordon. The tune was called ‘Daddy Played the Horn.’ Or maybe the album. The LP.” He stands there, shaking his head, then nods. “Plays. Daddy Plays. ‘Daddy Plays the Horn.’ ” And just like that it all comes back. Dexter Gordon playing on the hi-fi. Jacky Sawyer behind the couch, playing with his toy London taxi, so satisfying because of its weight, which somehow made it seem more real than a toy. His father and Richard’s father talking. Phil Sawyer and Morgan Sloat.
Imagine what this guy would be like over there, Uncle Morgan had said, and that had been Jack Sawyer’s first hint of the Territories. When Jacky was six, Jacky got the word. And ??
“When Jacky was twelve, Jacky actually went there,” he says.
Ridiculous! Morgan’s son trumpets. Utterly . . . ba-haaa! . . . ridiculous! Next you’ll be telling me there really were men in the sky!
But before Jack can tell his mental version of his old pal that or anything else, another car arrives. This one pulls up beside him. Looking suspiciously out of the driver’s window (the expression is habitual, Jack has found, and means nothing in itself ) is Elvena Morton, Henry Leyden’s housekeeper.
“What in the tarnal are you doin’ way down here, Jack Sawyer?” she asks.
He gives her a smile. “Didn’t sleep very well, Mrs. Morton. Thought I’d take a little walk to clear my head.”
“And do you always go walking through the dews and the damps when you want to clear your head?” she asks, casting her eyes down at his jeans, which are wet to the knee and even a bit beyond. “Does that help?”
“I guess I got lost in my own thoughts,” he says.
“I guess you did,” she says. “Get in and I’ll give you a lift most of the way back to your place. Unless, that is, you’ve got a little more head clearing to do.”
Jack has to grin. That’s a good one. Reminds him of his late mother, actually. (When asked by her impatient son what was for dinner and when it would be served, Lily Cavanaugh was apt to say, “Fried farts with onions, wind pudding and air sauce for dessert, come and get it at ha’ past a pickle.”)
“I guess my head’s as clear as I can expect today,” he says, and goes around the front of Mrs. Morton’s old brown Toyota. There’s a brown bag on the passenger seat with leafy stuff poking out of it. Jack moves it to the middle, then sits down.
“I don’t know if the early bird gets the worm,” she says, driving on, “but the early shopper gets the best greens at Roy’s, I can tell you that. Also, I like to get there before the layabouts.”
“Layabouts, Mrs. Morton?”
She gives him her best suspicious look, eyes cutting to the side, right corner of her mouth quirked down as if at the taste of something sour.
“Take up space at the lunch counter and talk about the Fisherman this and the Fisherman that. Who he might be, what he might be ?? a Swede or a Pole or an Irish ?? and of course what they’ll do to him when he’s caught, which he would have been long ago if anyone but that nummie-squarehead Dale Gilbertson was in charge of things. So says they. Easy to take charge when you got your ass cozied down on one of Roy Soderholm’s stools, cuppa coffee in one hand and a sinker in the other. So thinks I. Course, half of ’em’s also got the unemployment check in their back pockets, but they won’t talk about that. My father used to say, ‘Show me a man who’s too good to hay in July and I’ll show you a man that won’t turn a hand the rest of the year, neither.’ “
Jack settles in the passenger bucket, knees against the dash, and watches the road unroll. They’ll be back in no time. His pants are starting to dry and he feels oddly at peace. The nice thing about Elvena Morton is that you don’t have to hold up your end of the conversation, because she is glad to take care of everything. Another Lily-ism occurs to him. Of a very talkative person (Uncle Morgan, for instance), she was apt to say that So-and-so’s tongue was “hung in the middle and running on both ends.”
He grins a little, and raises a casual hand to hide his mouth from Mrs. M. She’d ask him what was so funny, and what would he tell her? That he had just been thinking her tongue was hung in the middle? But it’s also funny how the thoughts and memories are flooding back. Did he just yesterday try to call his mother, forgetting she was dead? That now seems like something he might have done in a different life. Maybe it was a different life. God knows he doesn’t seem like the same man who swung his legs out of bed this morning, wearily, and with a feeling best described as doomish. He feels fully alive for the first time since . . . well, since Dale first brought him out this very same road, he supposes, and showed him the nice little place that had once belonged to Dale’s father.
Elvena Morton, meanwhile, rolls on.
“Although I also admit that I take any excuse to get out of the house when he starts with the Mad Mongoloid,” she says. The Mad Mon-goloid is Mrs. Morton’s term for Henry’s Wisconsin Rat persona. Jack nods understanding, not knowing that before many hours are passed, he will be meeting a fellow nicknamed the Mad Hungarian. Life’s little coincidences.
“It’s always early in the morning that he takes it into his head to do the Mad Mongoloid, and I’ve told him, ‘Henry, if you have to scream like that and say awful things and then play that awful music by kids who never should have been let near a tuba, let alone an electrical guitar, why do you do it in the morning when you know it spoils you for the whole day?’ And it does, he gets a headache four times out of every five he pretends to be the Mad Mongoloid and by afternoon he’s lying in his bedroom with an icebag on his poor forehead and not a bite of lunch will he take on those days, neither. Sometimes his supper will be gone when I check the next day ?? I always leave it in the same place in the refrigerator, unless he tells me he wants to cook himself ?? but half the time it’s still there and even when it’s gone I think that sometimes he just tips it down the garbage disposer.”
Jack grunts. It’s all he has to do. Her words wash over him and he thinks of how he will put the sneaker in a Baggie, handling it with the fire tongs, and when he turns it over at the police station, the chain of evidence will begin. He’s thinking about how he needs to make sure there’s nothing else in the sneaker box, and check the wrapping paper. He also wants to check those sugar packets. Maybe there’s a restaurant name printed under the bird pictures. It’s a longshot, but ??
“And he says, ‘Mrs. M., I can’t help it. Some days I just wake up as the Rat. And although I pay for it later, there’s such joy in it while the fit is on me. Such total joy.’ And I asked him, I said, ‘How can there be joy in music about children wanting to kill their parents and eat fetuses and have sex with animals’ ?? as one of those songs really was about, Jack, I heard it clear as day ?? ‘and all of that?’ I asked him, and he said ?? Uhhp, here we are.”
They have indeed reached the driveway leading to Henry’s house. A quarter of a mile further along is the roof of Jack’s own place. His Ram pickup twinkles serenely in the driveway. He can’t see his porch, most certainly can’t see the horror that lies upon its boards, waiting for someone to clean it up. To clean it up in the name of decency.
“I could run you all the way up,” she says. “Why don’t I just do that?”
Jack, thinking of the sneaker and the rotten baloney smell hanging around it, smiles, shakes his head, and quickly opens the passenger door. “Guess I need to do a little more thinking after all,” he says.
She looks at him with that expression of discontented suspicion which is, Jack suspects, love. She knows that Jack has brightened Henry Leyden’s life, and for that alone he believes she loves him. He likes to hope so, anyway. It occurs to him that she never mentioned the baseball cap he’s holding, but why would she? In this part of the world, every man’s got at least four.
He starts up the road, hair flopping (his days of styled cuts at Chez-Chez on Rodeo Drive are long behind him now ?? this is the Coulee Country, and when he thinks of it at all, he gets his hair cut by old Herb Roeper down on Chase Street next to the Amvets), his gait as loose and lanky as a boy’s. Mrs. Morton leans out her window and calls after him. “Change out of those jeans, Jack! The minute you get back! Don’t let them dry on you! That’s how arthritis starts!”
He raises a hand without turning and calls back, “Right!”
Five minutes later, he’s walking up his own driveway again. At least temporarily, the fear and depression have been burned out of him. The ecstasy as well, which is a relief. The last thing a coppiceman needs is to go charging through an investigation in a state of ecstasy.
As he sights the box on the porch ?? and the wrapping paper, and the feathers, and the ever-popular child’s sneaker, can’t forget that ?? Jack’s mind turns back to Mrs. Morton quoting that great sage Henry Leyden.
I can’t help it. Some days I just wake up as the Rat. And although I pay for it later, there’s such joy in it while the fit is on me. Such total joy.
Total joy. Jack has felt this from time to time as a detective, sometimes while investigating a crime scene, more often while questioning a witness who knows more than he or she is telling . . . and this is something Jack Sawyer almost always knows, something he smells. He supposes carpenters feel that joy when they are carpentering particularly well, sculptors when they’re having a good nose or chin day, architects when the lines are landing on their blueprints just right. The only problem is, someone in French Landing (maybe one of the surrounding towns, but Jack is guessing French Landing) gets that feeling of joy by killing children and eating parts of their little bodies.
Someone in French Landing is, more and more frequently, waking up as the Fisherman.
Jack goes into his house by the back door. He stops in the kitchen for the box of large-size Baggies, a couple of wastebasket liners, a dustpan, and the whisk broom. He opens the refrigerator’s icemaker compartment and loads about half the cubes into one of the plastic liners ?? as far as Jack Sawyer is concerned, Irma Freneau’s poor foot has reached its maximum state of decay.
He ducks into his study, where he grabs a yellow legal pad, a black marker, and a ballpoint pen. In the living room he gets the shorter set of fire tongs. And by the time he steps back onto the porch, he has pretty much put his secret identity as Jack Sawyer aside.
I am COPPICEMAN, he thinks, smiling. Defender of the American Way, friend of the lame, the halt, and the dead.
Then, as he looks down at the sneaker, surrounded by its pitiful little cloud of stink, the smile fades. He feels some of the tremendous mystery we felt when we first came upon Irma in the wreckage of the abandoned restaurant. He will do his absolute best to honor this remnant, just as we did our best to honor the child. He thinks of autopsies he has attended, of the true solemnity that lurks behind the jokes and butcher-shop crudities.
“Irma, is it you?” he asks quietly. “If it is, you help me, now. Talk to me. This is the time for the dead to help the living.” Without thinking about it, Jack kisses his fingers and blows the kiss down toward the sneaker. He thinks, I’d like to kill the man ?? or the thing ?? that did this. String him up alive and screaming while he filled his pants. Send him out in the stink of his own dirt.
But such thoughts are not honorable, and he banishes them.
The first Baggie is for the sneaker with the remains of the foot inside it. Use the tongs. Zip it closed. Mark the date on the Baggie with the marker. Note the nature of the evidence on the pad with the ballpoint. Put it in the wastebasket liner with the ice in it.
The second is for the cap. No need for the tongs here; he’s already handled the item. He puts it in the Baggie. Zips it closed. Marks the date, notes the nature of the evidence on the pad.
The third bag is for the brown wrapping paper. He holds it up for a moment in the tongs, examining the bogus bird stamps. MANUFACTURED BY DOMINO is printed below each picture, but that’s all. No restaurant name, nothing of that sort. Into the Baggie. Zip it closed. Mark the date. Note the nature of the evidence.
He sweeps up the feathers and puts them in a fourth Baggie. There are more feathers in the box. He picks the box up with the tongs, dumps the feathers inside onto the dustpan, and then his heart takes a sudden hard leap in his chest, seeming to knock against the left side of his rib cage like a fist. Something is written on the box’s bottom. The same Sharpie marker has been used to make the same straggling letters. And whoever wrote this knew who he was writing to. Not the outer Jack Sawyer, or else he ?? the Fisherman ?? would have no doubt called him Hollywood.
This message is addressed to the inner man, and to the child who was here before Jack “Hollywood” Sawyer was ever thought of.
Try Ed’s Eats and Dogs, coppiceman. Your fiend,
“Your fiend,” Jack murmurs. “Yes.” He picks up the box with the tongs and puts it into the second wastebasket liner; he doesn’t have any Baggies quite big enough for it. Then he gathers all the evidence beside him in a neat little pile. This stuff always looks the same, at once grisly and prosaic, like the kind of photographs you used to see in those true-crime magazines.
He goes inside and dials Henry’s number. He’s afraid he’ll get Mrs. Morton, but it turns out to be Henry instead, thank God. His current fit of Rat-ism has apparently passed, although there’s a residue; even over the phone Jack can hear the faint thump and bray of “electrical guitars.”
He knows Ed’s Eats well, Henry says, but why in the world would Jack want to know about a place like that? “It’s nothing but a wreck now; Ed Gilbertson died quite a time ago and there are people in French Landing who’d call that a blessing, Jack. The place was a ptomaine palace if ever there was one. A gut-ache waiting to happen. You’d have expected the board of health to shut him down, but Ed knew people. Dale Gilbertson, for one.”
“The two of them related?” Jack asks, and when Henry replies “Fuck, yeah,” something his friend would never say in the ordinary course of things, Jack understands that while Henry may have avoided a migraine this time, that Rat is still running in his head. Jack has heard similar bits of George Rathbun pop out from time to time, unexpected fat exultations from Henry’s slim throat, and there is the way Henry often says good-bye, throwing a Ding-dong or Ivey-divey over his shoulder: that’s just the Sheik, the Shake, the Shook coming up for air.
“Where exactly is it?” Jack asks.
“That’s hard to say,” Henry replies. He now sounds a bit testy. “Out by the farm equipment place . . . Goltz’s? As I recall, the driveway’s so long you might as well call it an access road. And if there was ever a sign, it’s long gone. When Ed Gilbertson sold his last microbe-infested chili dog, Jack, you were probably in the first grade. What’s all this about?”
Jack knows that what he’s thinking of doing is ridiculous by normal investigatory standards ?? you don’t invite a John Q. to a crime scene, especially not a murder scene ?? but this is no normal investigation. He has one piece of bagged evidence that he recovered in another world, how’s that for abnormal? Of course he can find the long-defunct Ed’s Eats; someone at Goltz’s will no doubt point him right at it. But ??
“The Fisherman just sent me one of Irma Freneau’s sneakers,” Jack says. “With Irma’s foot still inside it.”
Henry’s initial response is a deep, sharp intake of breath.
“Henry? Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Henry’s voice is shocked but steady. “How terrible for the girl and her mother.” He pauses. “And for you. For Dale.” Another pause. “For this town.”
“Jack, do you want me to take you to Ed’s?”
Henry can do that, Jack knows. Easy as pie. Ivey-divey. And let’s get real ?? why did he call Henry in the first place?
“Yes,” he says.
“Have you called the police?”
He’ll ask me why not, and what will I say? That I don’t want Bobby Dulac, Tom Lund, and the rest of them tromping around out there, mixing their scents with the doer’s scent, until I get a chance to smell for myself? That I don’t trust a mother’s son of them not to fuck things up, and that includes Dale himself?
But Henry doesn’t ask. “I’ll be standing at the end of my driveway,” he said. “Just tell me when.”
Jack calculates his remaining chores with the evidence, chores that will end with stowing everything in the lockbox in the bed of his truck. Reminds himself to take his cell phone, which usually does nothing but stand on its little charging device in his study. He’ll want to call everything in as soon as he has seen Irma’s remains in situ and finished that vital first walk-through. Let Dale and his boys come then. Let them bring along the high school marching band, if they want to. He glances at his watch and sees that it’s almost eight o’clock. How did it get so late so early? Distances are shorter in the other place, this he remembers, but does time go faster as well? Or has he simply lost track?
“I’ll be there at eight-fifteen,” Jack says. “And when we get to Ed’s Eats, you’re going to sit in my truck like a good little boy until I tell you you can get out.”
“Understood, mon capitaine.”
“Ding-dong.” Jack hangs up and heads back out to the porch.
Things aren’t going to turn out the way Jack hopes. He’s not going to get that clear first look and smell. In fact, by this afternoon the situation in French Landing, volatile already, will be on the verge of spinning out of control. Although there are many factors at work here, the chief cause of this latest escalation will be the Mad Hungarian.
There’s a dose of good old small-town humor in this nickname, like calling the skinny bank clerk Big Joe or the trifocal-wearing bookstore proprietor Hawkeye. Arnold Hrabowski, at five foot six and one hundred and fifty pounds, is the smallest man on Dale Gilbertson’s current roster. In fact, he’s the smallest person on Dale’s current roster, as both Debbi Anderson and Pam Stevens outweigh him and stand taller (at six-one, Debbi could eat scrambled eggs off Arnold Hrabowski’s head). The Mad Hungarian is also a fairly inoffensive fellow, the sort of guy who continues to apologize for giving tickets no matter how many times Dale has told him that this is a very bad policy, and who has been known to start interrogations with such unfortunate phrases as Excuse me, but I was wondering. As a result, Dale keeps him on desk as much as possible, or downtown, where everyone knows him and most treat him with absent respect. He tours the county grammar schools as Officer Friendly. The little ones, unaware that they are getting their first lessons on the evils of pot from the Mad Hungarian, adore him. When he gives tougher lectures on dope, drink, and reckless driving at the high school, the kids doze or pass notes, although they do think the federally funded DARE car he drives ?? a low, sleek Pontiac with JUST SAY NO emblazoned on the doors ?? is way cool. Basically, Officer Hrabowski is about as exciting as a tuna on white, hold the mayo.
But in the seventies, you see, there was this relief pitcher for St. Louis and then the Kansas City Royals, a very fearsome fellow indeed, and his name was Al Hrabosky. He stalked rather than walked in from the bullpen, and before beginning to pitch (usually in the ninth inning with the bases juiced and the game on the line), Al Hrabosky would turn from the plate, lower his head, clench his fists, and pump them once, very hard, psyching himself up. Then he would turn and begin throwing nasty fastballs, many of them within kissing distance of the batters’ chins. He was of course called the Mad Hungarian, and even a blind man could see he was the best damn reliever in the majors. And of course Arnold Hrabowski is now known, must be known, as the Mad Hungarian. He even tried to grow a Fu Manchu mustache a few years back, like the one the famed reliever wore. But whereas Al Hrabosky’s Fu was as fearsome as Zulu warpaint, Arnold’s only provoked chuckles ?? a Fu sprouting on that mild accountant’s face, just imagine! ?? and so he shaved it off.
The Mad Hungarian of French Landing is not a bad fellow; he does his absolute level best, and under normal circumstances his level best is good enough. But these aren’t ordinary days in French Landing, these are the slippery slippage days, the abbalah-opopanax days, and he is exactly the sort of officer of whom Jack is afraid. And this morning he is, quite without meaning to, going to make a bad situation very much worse.
The call from the Fisherman comes in to the 911 phone at 8:10 A.M., while Jack is finishing his notes on the yellow legal pad and Henry is strolling down his driveway, smelling the summer morning with great pleasure in spite of the shadow Jack’s news has cast over his mind. Unlike some of the officers (Bobby Dulac, for instance), the Mad Hungarian reads the script taped next to the 911 phone word for word.
ARNOLD HRABOWSKI: Hello, this is the French Landing Police Department, Officer Hrabowski speaking. You’ve dialed 911. Do you have an emergency?
[Unintelligible sound . . . throat-clearing?]
AH: Hello? This is Officer Hrabowski answering on 911. Do you ??
CALLER: Hello, asswipe.
AH: Who is this? Do you have an emergency?
C: You have an emergency. Not me. You.
AH: Who is this, please?
C: Your worst nightmare.
AH: Sir, could I ask you to identify yourself ?
C: Abbalah. Abbalah-doon. [Phonetic.]
AH: Sir, I don’t ??
C: I’m the Fisherman.
C: What’s wrong? Scared? You ought to be scared.
AH: Sir. Ah, sir. There are penalties for false ??
C: There are whips in hell and chains in shayol. [Caller may be saying “Sheol.”]
AH: Sir, if I could have your name ??
C: My name is legion. My number is many. I am a rat under the floor of the universe. Robert Frost said that. [Caller laughs.]
AH: Sir, if you hold, I can put on my chief ??
C: Shut up and listen, asswipe. Your tape running? I hope so. I could shag [Caller may be saying “scram” but word is indistinct] it if I wanted to but I don’t want to.
AH: Sir, I ??
C: Kiss my scrote, you monkey. I left you one and I’m tired of waiting for you to find her. Try Ed’s Eats and Dogs. Might be a little rotten now, but when she was new she was very [Caller rolls r’s, turning the word into “verrry”] tasty.
AH: Where are you? Who is this? If this is a joke ??
C: Tell the coppiceman I said hello.
When the call began, the Mad Hungarian’s pulse was lub-dubbing along at a perfectly normal sixty-eight beats a minute. When it ends at 8:12, Arnold Hrabowski’s ticker is in overdrive. His face is pale. Halfway through the call he looked at the Caller I.D. readout and wrote down the number displayed there with a hand shaking so badly that the numbers jigged up and down over three lines on his pad. When the Fisherman hangs up and he hears the sound of an open line, Hrabowski is so flustered that he tries to dial the callback on the red phone, forgetting that 911 is a one-way street. His fingers strike the smooth plastic front of the phone and he drops it back into the cradle with a frightened curse. He looks at it like something that has bitten him.
Hrabowski grabs the receiver from the black telephone beside 911, starts to punch in the callback, but his fingers betray him and hit two numbers at once. He curses again, and Tom Lund, passing by with a cup of coffee, says, “What’s wrong there, Arnie?”
“Get Dale!” the Mad Hungarian shouts, startling Tom so badly he spills coffee on his fingers. “Get him out here now!”
“What the hell’s wrong with y ?? “
Tom stares at Hrabowski a moment longer, eyebrows raised, then goes to tell Dale that the Mad Hungarian seems to have really gone mad.
The second time Hrabowski tries, he succeeds in dialing the callback number. It rings. It rings. And it rings some more.
Dale Gilbertson appears with his own cup of coffee. There are dark circles under his eyes, and the lines at the corners of his mouth are a lot more prominent than they used to be.
“Arnie? What’s ?? “
“Play back the last call,” Arnold Hrabowski says. “I think it was . . . hello!” He barks this last, sitting forward behind the dispatch desk and shoving papers every which way. “Hello, who is this?”
“It’s the police, that’s who it is. Officer Hrabowski, FLPD. Now you talk to me. Who is this?”
Dale, meanwhile, has got the earphones on his head and is listening to the most recent call to French Landing 911 with mounting horror. Oh dear God, he thinks. His first impulse ?? the very first ?? is to call Jack Sawyer and ask for help. To bawl for it, like a little kid with his hand caught in a door. Then he tells himself to take hold, that this is his job, like it or not, and he had better take hold and try to do it. Besides, Jack has gone up to Arden with Fred Marshall to see Fred’s crazy wife. At least that was the plan.
Cops, meanwhile, are clustering around the dispatch desk: Lund, Tcheda, Stevens. What Dale sees when he looks at them is nothing but big eyes and pale, bewildered faces. And the ones on patrol? The ones currently off duty? No better. With the possible exception of Bobby Dulac, no better. He feels despair as well as horror. Oh, this is a nightmare. A truck with no brakes rolling downhill toward a crowded school playground.
He pulls the earphones off, tearing a small cut by his ear, not feeling it. “Where’d it come from?” he asks Hrabowski. The Mad Hungarian has hung up the telephone and is just sitting there, stunned. Dale grabs his shoulder and gives it a shake. “Where’d it come from?”
“The 7-Eleven,” the Mad Hungarian replies, and Dale hears Danny Tcheda grunt. Not too far from where the Marshall boy’s bike disappeared, in other words. “I just spoke with Mr. Rajan Patel, the day clerk. He says the callback number belongs to the pay phone, just outside.”
“Did he see who made the call?”
“No. He was out back, taking a beer delivery.”
“You positive Patel himself didn’t ?? “
“Yeah. He’s got an Indian accent. Heavy. The guy on 911 . . . Dale, you heard him. He sounded like anybody.”
“What’s going on?” Pam Stevens asks. She has a good idea, though; they all do. It’s just a question of details. “What’s happened?”
Because it’s the quickest way to get them up to speed, Dale replays the call, this time on speaker.
In the stunned silence that follows, Dale says: “I’m going out to Ed’s Eats. Tom, you’re coming with me.”
“Yessir!” Tom Lund says. He looks almost ill with excitement.
“Four more cruisers to follow me.” Most of Dale’s mind is frozen; this procedural stuff skates giddily on top of the ice. I’m okay at procedure and organization, he thinks. It’s just catching the goddamn psycho murderer that’s giving me a little trouble. “All pairs. Danny, you and Pam in the first. Leave five minutes after Tom and I do. Five minutes by the clock, and no lights or siren. We’re going to keep this quiet just as long as we can.”
Danny Tcheda and Pam Stevens look at each other, nod, then look back at Dale. Dale is looking at Arnold “the Mad Hungarian” Hrabowski. He ticks off three more pairs, ending with Dit Jesperson and Bobby Dulac. Bobby is the only one he really wants out there; the others are just insurance and ?? God grant it not be necessary ?? crowd control. All of them are to come at five-minute intervals.
“Let me go out, too,” Arnie Hrabowski pleads. “Come on, boss, what do you say?”
Dale opens his mouth to say he wants Arnie right where he is, but then he sees the hopeful look in those watery brown eyes. Even in his own deep distress, Dale can’t help responding to that, at least a little. For Arnie, police life is too often standing on the sidewalk while the parade goes by.
Some parade, he thinks.
“I tell you what, Arn,” he says. “When you finish all your other calls, buzz Debbi. If you can get her in here, you can come out to Ed’s.”
Arnold nods excitedly, and Dale almost smiles. The Mad Hungarian will have Debbi in here by nine-thirty, he guesses, even if he has to drag her by the hair like Alley Oop. “Who do I pair with, Dale?”
“Come by yourself,” Dale says. “In the DARE car, why don’t you? But, Arnie, if you leave this desk without relief waiting to drop into the chair the second you leave it, you’ll be looking for a new job come tomorrow.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Hrabowski says, and, Hungarian or not, in his excitement he sounds positively Suh-vee-dish. Nor is that surprising, since Centralia, where he grew up, was once known as Swede Town.
“Come on, Tom,” Dale says. “We’ll grab the evidence kit on our ?? “
“Uh . . . boss?”
“What, Arnie?” Meaning, of course, What now?
“Should I call those State Police guys, Brown and Black?”
Danny Tcheda and Pam Stevens snicker. Tom smiles. Dale doesn’t do either. His heart, already in the cellar, now goes even lower. Subbasement, ladies and gentlemen ?? false hopes on your left, lost causes on your right. Last stop, everybody out.
Perry Brown and Jeff Black. He had forgotten them, how funny. Brown and Black, who would now almost certainly take his case away from him.
“They’re still out at the Paradise Motel,” the Mad Hungarian goes on, “although I think the FBI guy went back to Milwaukee.”
“I ?? “
“And County,” the Hungarian plows relentlessly along. “Don’t forget them. You want me to call the M.E. first, or the evidence wagon?” The evidence wagon is a blue Ford Econoline van, packed with everything from quick-drying plaster for taking tire impressions to a rolling video studio. Stuff the French Landing P.D. will never have access to.
Dale stands where he is, head lowered, looking dismally at the floor. They are going to take the case away from him. With every word Hrabowski says, that is clearer. And suddenly he wants it for his own. In spite of how he hates it and how it scares him, he wants it with all his heart. The Fisherman is a monster, but he’s not a county monster, a state monster, or a Federal Bureau of Investigation monster. The Fisherman is a French Landing monster, Dale Gilbertson’s monster, and he wants to keep the case for reasons that have nothing to do with personal prestige or even the practical matter of holding on to his job. He wants him because the Fisherman is an offense against everything Dale wants and needs and believes in. Those are things you can’t say out loud without sounding corny and stupid, but they are true for all that. He feels a sudden, foolish anger at Jack. If Jack had come on board sooner, maybe ??
And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. He has to notify County, if only to get the medical examiner out at the scene, and he has to notify the State Police, in the persons of Detectives Brown and Black, as well. But not until he has a look at what’s out there, in the field beyond Goltz’s. At what the Fisherman has left. By God, not until then.
And, perhaps, has one final swing at the bastard.
“Get our guys rolling at five-minute intervals,” he said, “just as I told you. Then get Debbi in the dispatch chair. Have her call State and County.” Arnold Hrabowski’s puzzled face makes Dale feels like screaming, but somehow he retains his patience. “I want some lead time.”
“Oh,” Arnie says, and then, when he actually does get it: “Oh!”
“And don’t tell anyone other than our guys about the call or our response. Anyone. You’d likely start a panic. Do you understand?”
“Absolutely, boss,” says the Hungarian.
Dale glances at the clock: 8:26 A.M. “Come on, Tom,” he says. “Let’s get moving. Tempus fugit.”
The Mad Hungarian has never been more efficient, and things fall into place like a dream. Even Debbi Anderson is a good sport about the desk. And yet through it all, the voice on the phone stays with him. Hoarse, raspy, with just a tinge of accent ?? the kind anyone living in this part of the world might pick up. Nothing unusual about that. Yet it haunts him. Not that the guy called him an asswipe ?? he’s been called much worse by your ordinary Saturday night drunks ?? but some of the other stuff. There are whips in hell and chains in shayol. My name is legion. Stuff like that. And abbalah. What was an abbalah? Arnold Hrabowski doesn’t know. He only knows that the very sound of it in his head makes him feel bad and scared. It’s like a word in a secret book, the kind you might use to conjure up a demon.
When he gets the willies, there’s only one person who can take them away, and that’s his wife. He knows Dale told him not to tell anybody about what was going down, and he understands the reasons, but surely the chief didn’t mean Paula. They have been married twenty years, and Paula isn’t like another person at all. She’s like the rest of him.
So (more in order to dispel his bad case of the willies than to gossip; let’s at least give Arnold that much) the Mad Hungarian makes the terrible mistake of trusting his wife’s discretion. He calls Paula and tells her that he spoke to the Fisherman not half an hour ago. Yes, really, the Fisherman! He tells her about the body that is supposedly waiting for Dale and Tom Lund out at Ed’s Eats. She asks him if he’s all right. Her voice is trembling with awe and excitement, and the Mad Hungarian finds this quite satisfying, since he’s feeling awed and excited himself. They talk a little more, and when Arnold hangs up, he feels better. The terror of that rough, strangely knowing voice on the phone has receded a little.
Paula Hrabowski is discretion itself, the very soul of discretion. She tells only her two best friends about the call Arnie got from the Fisherman and the body at Ed’s Eats, and swears them both to secrecy. Both say they will never tell a soul, and this is why, one hour later, even before the State Police and the county medical and forensics guys have been called, everyone knows that the police have found a slaughterhouse out at Ed’s Eats. Half a dozen murdered kids.