Black House Chapter Three

Black House Chapter Three

3

OUT TYLER’S WINDOW we go, away from Libertyville, flying southwest on a diagonal, not lingering now but really flapping those old wings, flying with a purpose. We’re headed toward the heliograph flash of early-morning sun on the Father of Waters, also toward the world’s largest six-pack. Between it and County Road Oo (we can call it Nail-house Row if we want; we’re practically honorary citizens of French Landing now) is a radio tower, the warning beacon on top now invisible in the bright sunshine of this newborn July day. We smell grass and trees and warming earth, and as we draw closer to the tower, we also smell the yeasty, fecund aroma of beer.

Next to the radio tower, in the industrial park on the east side of Peninsula Drive, is a little cinder-block building with a parking lot just big enough for half a dozen cars and the Coulee patrol van, an aging Ford Econoline painted candy-apple pink. As the day winds down and afternoon wears into evening, the cylindrical shadows of the six-pack will fall first over the sign on the balding lawn facing the drive, then the building, then the parking lot. KDCU-AM, this sign reads, YOUR TALK VOICE IN COULEE COUNTRY. Spray-painted across it, in a pink that almost matches the patrol van, is a fervent declaration: TROY LUVS MARYANN! YES! Later on, Howie Soule, the U-Crew engineer, will clean this off (probably during the Rush Limbaugh show, which is satellite fed and totally automated), but for now it stays, telling us all we need to know about small-town luv in middle America. Looks like we found something nice after all.

Coming out of the station’s side door as we arrive is a slender man dressed in pleated khaki Dockers, a tieless white shirt of Egyptian cotton buttoned all the way to the neck, and maroon braces (they are as slim as he is, those braces, and far too cool to be called suspenders; suspenders are vulgar things worn by such creatures as Chipper Maxton and Sonny Heartfield, down at the funeral home). This silver-haired fellow is also wearing a very sharp straw fedora, antique but beautifully kept. The maroon hatband matches his braces. Aviator-style sunglasses cover his eyes. He takes a position on the grass to the left of the door, beneath a battered speaker that is amping KDCU’s current broadcast: the local news. This will be followed by the Chicago farm report, which gives him ten minutes before he has to settle in behind the mike again.

We watch in growing puzzlement as he produces a pack of American Spirit cigarettes from his shirt pocket and fires one up with a gold lighter. Surely this elegant fellow in the braces, Dockers, and Bass Weejuns cannot be George Rathbun. In our minds we have already built up a picture of George, and it is one of a fellow very different from this. In our mind’s eye we see a guy with a huge belly hanging over the white belt of his checked pants (all those ballpark bratwursts), a brick-red complexion (all those ballpark beers, not to mention all that bellowing at the dastardly umps), and a squat, broad neck (perfect for housing those asbestos vocal cords). The George Rathbun of our imagination ?? and all of Coulee Country’s, it almost goes without saying ?? is a pop-eyed, broad-assed, wild-haired, leather-lunged, Rolaids-popping, Chevy-driving, Republican-voting heart attack waiting to happen, a churning urn of sports trivia, mad enthusiasms, crazy prejudices, and high cholesterol.

This fellow is not that fellow. This fellow moves like a dancer. This fellow is iced tea on a hot day, cool as the king of spades.

But say, that’s the joke of it, isn’t it? Uh-huh. The joke of the fat dee-jay with the skinny voice, only turned inside out. In a very real sense, George Rathbun does not exist at all. He is a hobby in action, a fiction in the flesh, and only one of the slim man’s multiple personalities. The people at KDCU know his real name and think they’re in on the joke (the punch line of course being George’s trademark line, the even-a-blind-man thing), but they don’t know the half of it. Nor is this a metaphorical statement. They know exactly one-third of it, because the man in the Dockers and the straw fedora is actually four people.

In any case, George Rathbun has been the saving of KDCU, the last surviving AM station in a predatory FM market. For five mornings a week, week in and week out, he has been a drive-time bonanza. The U-Crew (as they call themselves) love him just about to death.

Above him, the loudspeaker cackles on: ” ?? still no leads, according to Chief Dale Gilbertson, who has called Herald reporter Wendell Green ?®an out-of-town fearmonger who is more interested in selling papers than in how we do things in French Landing.’

“Meanwhile, in Arden, a house fire has taken the lives of an elderly farmer and his wife. Horst P. Lepplemier and his wife, Gertrude, both eighty-two . . .”

“Horst P. Lepplemier,” says the slim man, drawing on his cigarette with what appears to be great enjoyment. “Try saying that one ten times fast, you moke.” Behind him and to his right, the door opens again, and although the smoker is still standing directly beneath the speaker, he hears the door perfectly well. The eyes behind the aviator shades have been dead his whole life, but his hearing is exquisite.

The newcomer is pasty-faced and comes blinking into the morning sun like a baby mole that has just been turned out of its burrow by the blade of a passing plow. His head has been shaved except for the Mo-hawk strip up the center of his skull and the pigtail that starts just above the nape of his neck and hangs to his shoulder blades. The Mohawk has been dyed bright red; the ‘tail is electric blue. Dangling from one ear-lobe is a lightning-bolt earring that looks suspiciously like the Nazi S.S. insignia. He is wearing a torn black T-shirt with a logo that reads SNIVELLING SHITS ’97: THE WE GET HARD FOR JESUS TOUR. In one hand this colorful fellow has a CD jewel box.

“Hello, Morris,” says the slim man in the fedora, still without turning.

Morris pulls in a little gasp, and in his surprise looks like the nice Jewish boy that he actually is. Morris Rosen is the U-Crew’s summer intern from the Oshkosh branch of UW. “Man, I love that unpaid grunt labor!” station manager Tom Wiggins has been heard to say, usually while rubbing his hands together fiendishly. Never has a checkbook been guarded so righteously as the Wigger guards the KDCU check-book. He is like Smaug the Dragon reclining on his heaps of gold (not? that there are heaps of anything in the ‘DCU accounts; it bears repeating to say that, as an AM talker, the station is lucky just to be alive).

Morris’s look of surprise ?? it might be fair to call it uneasy surprise ?? dissolves into a smile. “Wow, Mr. Leyden! Good grab! What a pair of ears!”

Then he frowns. Even if Mr. Leyden ?? who’s standing directly beneath the outside honker, can’t forget that ?? heard someone come out, how in God’s name did he know which someone it was?

“How’d you know it was me?” he asks.

“Only two people around here smell like marijuana in the morning,” Henry Leyden says. “One of them follows his morning smoke with Scope; the other ?? that’s you, Morris ?? just lets her rip.”

“Wow,” Morris says respectfully. “That is totally bitchrod.”

“I am totally bitchrod,” Henry agrees. He speaks softly and thoughtfully. “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. In regard to your morning rendezvous with the undeniably tasty Thai stick, may I offer an Appalachian aphorism?”

“Go, dude.” This is Morris’s first real discussion with Henry Leyden, who is every bit the head Morris has been told to expect. Every bit and more. It is no longer so hard to believe that he could have another identity . . . a secret identity, like Bruce Wayne. But still . . . this is just so pimp.

“What we do in our childhood forms as a habit,” Henry says in the same soft, totally un?CGeorge Rathbun voice. “That is my advice to you, Morris.”

“Yeah, totally,” Morris says. He has no clue what Mr. Leyden is talking about. But he slowly, shyly, extends the CD jewel box in his hand. For a moment, when Henry makes no move to take it, Morris feels crushed, all at once seven years old again and trying to wow his always-too-busy father with a picture he has spent all afternoon drawing in his room. Then he thinks, He’s blind, dickweed. He may be able to smell pot on your breath and he may have ears like a bat, but how’s he supposed to know you’re holding out a fucking CD?

Hesitantly, a bit frightened by his own temerity, Morris takes Henry’s wrist. He feels the man start a little, but then Leyden allows his hand to be guided to the slender box.

“Ah, a CD,” Henry says. “And what is it, pray tell?”

“You gotta play the seventh track tonight on your show,” Morris says.

“Please.”

For the first time, Henry looks alarmed. He takes a drag on his cigarette, then drops it (without even looking ?? of course, ha ha) into the sand-filled plastic bucket by the door.

“What show could you possibly mean?” he asks.

Instead of answering directly, Morris makes a rapid little smacking noise with his lips, the sound of a small but voracious carnivore eating something tasty. And, to make things worse, he follows it with the Wisconsin Rat’s trademark line, as well known to the folks in Morris’s age group as George Rathbun’s hoarse “Even a blind man” cry is known to their elders: “Chew it up, eat it up, wash it down, it aaallll comes out the same place!”

He doesn’t do it very well, but there’s no question who he’s doing: the one and only Wisconsin Rat, whose evening drive-time program on KWLA-FM is famous in Coulee Country (except the word we probably want is “infamous”). KWLA is the tiny college FM station in La Riviere, hardly more than a smudge on the wallpaper of Wisconsin radio, but the Rat’s audience is huge.

And if anyone found out that the comfortable Brew Crew?Crooting, Republican-voting, AM-broadcasting George Rathbun was also the Rat ?? who had once narrated a gleeful on-air evacuation of his bowels onto a Backstreet Boys CD ?? there could be trouble. Quite serious, possibly, resounding well beyond the tight-knit little radio community.

“What in God’s name would ever make you think that I’m the Wisconsin Rat, Morris?” Henry asks. “I barely know who you’re talking about. Who put such a weird idea in your head?”

“An informed source,” Morris says craftily.

He won’t give Howie Soule up, not even if they pull out his fingernails with red-hot tongs. Besides, Howie only found out by accident: went into the station crapper one day after Henry left and discovered that Henry’s wallet had fallen out of his back pocket while he was sitting on the throne. You’d have thought a fellow whose other senses were so obviously tightwired would have sensed the absence, but probably Henry’s mind had been on other things ?? he was obviously a heavy dude who undoubtedly spent his days getting through some heavy thoughts. In any case, there was a KWLA I.D. card in Henry’s wallet (which Howie had thumbed through “in the spirit of friendly curiosity,” as he put it), and on the line marked NAME, someone had stamped a little inkpad drawing of a rat. Case closed, game over, zip up your fly.

“I have never in my life so much as stepped through the door of KWLA,” Henry says, and this is the absolute truth. He makes the Wisconsin Rat tapes (among others) in his studio at home, then sends them in to the station from the downtown Mail Boxes Etc., where he rents under the name of Joe Strummer. The card with the rat stamped on it was more in the nature of an invitation from the KWLA staff than anything else, one he’s never taken up . . . but he kept the card.

“Have you become anyone else’s informed source, Morris?”

“Huh?”

“Have you told anyone that you think I’m the Wisconsin Rat?”

“No! Course not!” Which, as we all know, is what people always say.

Luckily for Henry, in this case it happens to be true. So far, at least, but the day is still young.

“And you won’t, will you? Because rumors have a way of taking root. Just like certain bad habits.” Henry mimes puffing, pulling in smoke.

“I know how to keep my mouth shut,” Morris declares, with perhaps misplaced pride.

“I hope so. Because if you bruited this about, I’d have to kill you.”

Bruited, Morris thinks. Oh man, this guy is complete.

“Kill me, yeah,” Morris says, laughing.

“And eat you,” Henry says. He is not laughing; not even smiling.

“Yeah, right.” Morris laughs again, but this time the laugh sounds strangely forced to his own ears. “Like you’re Hannibal Lecture.”

“No, like I’m the Fisherman,” Henry says. He slowly turns his aviator sunglasses toward Morris. The sun reflects off them, for a moment turning them into rufous eyes of fire. Morris takes a step back without even realizing that he has done so. “Albert Fish liked to start with the ass, did you know that?”

“N ?? “

“Yes indeed. He claimed that a good piece of young ass was as sweet as a veal cutlet. His exact words. Written in a letter to the mother of one of his victims.”

“Far out,” Morris says. His voice sounds faint to his own ears, the voice of a plump little pig denying entrance to the big bad wolf. “But I’m not exactly, like, worried that you’re the Fisherman.”

“No? Why not?”

“Man, you’re blind, for one thing!”

Henry says nothing, only stares at the now vastly uneasy Morris with his fiery glass eyes. And Morris thinks: But is he blind? He gets around pretty good for a blind guy . . . and the way he tabbed me as soon as I came out here, how weird was that?

“I’ll keep quiet,” he says. “Honest to God.”

“That’s all I want,” Henry says mildly. “Now that we’ve got that straight, what exactly have you brought me?” He holds up the CD ?? but not as if he’s looking at it, Morris observes with vast relief.

“It’s, um, this Racine group. Dirtysperm? And they’ve got this cover of ?®Where Did Our Love Go’? The old Supremes thing? Only they do it at like a hundred and fifty beats a minute? It’s fuckin’ hilarious. I mean, it destroys the whole pop thing, man, blitzes it!”

“Dirtysperm,” Henry says. “Didn’t they used to be Jane Wyatt’s Clit?”

Morris looks at Henry with awe that could easily become love. “Dirtysperm’s lead guitarist, like, formed JWC, man. Then him and the bass guy had this political falling-out, something about Dean Kissinger and Henry Acheson, and Ucky Ducky ?? he’s the guitarist ?? went off to form Dirtysperm.”

” ?®Where Did Our Love Go’?” Henry muses, then hands the CD back. And, as if he sees the way Morris’s face falls: “I can’t be seen with something like that ?? use your head. Stick it in my locker.”

Morris’s gloom disappears and he breaks into a sunny smile. “Yeah, okay! You got it, Mr. Leyden!”

“And don’t let anyone see you doing it. Especially not Howie Soule. Howie’s a bit of a snoop. You’d do well not to emulate him.”

“No way, baby!” Still smiling, delighted at how all this has gone, Morris reaches for the door handle.

“And Morris?”

“Yeah?”

“Since you know my secret, perhaps you’d better call me Henry.”

“Henry! Yeah!” Is this the best morning of the summer for Morris Rosen? You better believe it.

“And something else.”

“Yeah? Henry?” Morris dares imagine a day when they will progress to Hank and Morrie.

“Keep your mouth shut about the Rat.”

“I already told you ?? “

“Yes, and I believe you. But temptation comes creeping, Morris; temptation comes creeping like a thief in the night, or like a killer in search of prey. If you give in to temptation, I’ll know. I’ll smell it on your skin like bad cologne. Do you believe me?”

“Uh . . . yeah.” And he does. Later, when he has time to kick back and reflect, Morris will think what a ridiculous idea that is, but yes, at the time, he believes it. Believes him. It’s like being hypnotized.

“Very good. Now off you go. I want Ace Hardware, Zaglat Chevy, and Mr. Tastee Ribs all cued up for the first seg.”

“Gotcha.”

“Also, last night’s game ?? “

“Wickman striking out the side in the eighth? That was pimp. Totally, like, un-Brewers.”

“No, I think we want the Mark Loretta home run in the fifth. Loretta doesn’t hit many, and the fans like him. I can’t think why. Even a blind man can see he has no range, especially from deep in the hole. Go on, son. Put the CD in my locker, and if I see the Rat, I’ll give it to him. I’m sure he’ll give it a spin.”

“The track ?? “

“Seven, seven, rhymes with heaven. I won’t forget and neither will he. Go on, now.”

Morris gives him a final grateful look and goes back inside. Henry Leyden, alias George Rathbun, alias the Wisconsin Rat, also alias Henry Shake (we’ll get to that one, but not now; the hour draweth late), lights another cigarette and drags deep. He won’t have time to finish it; the farm report is already in full flight (hog bellies up, wheat futures down, and the corn as high as an elephant’s eye), but he needs a couple of drags just now to steady himself. A long, long day stretches out ahead of him, ending with the Strawberry Fest Hop at Maxton Elder Care, that house of antiquarian horrors. God save him from the clutches of William “Chipper” Maxton, he has often thought. Given a choice between ending his days at MEC and burning his face off with a blowtorch, he would reach for the blowtorch every time. Later, if he’s not totally exhausted, perhaps his friend from up the road will come over and they can begin the long-promised reading of Bleak House. That would be a treat.

How long, he wonders, can Morris Rosen hold on to his momentous secret? Well, Henry supposes he will find that out. He likes the Rat too much to give him up unless he absolutely has to; that much is an undeniable fact.

“Dean Kissinger,” he murmurs. “Henry Acheson. Ucky Ducky. God save us.”

He takes another drag on his cigarette, then drops it into the bucket of sand. It is time to go back inside, time to replay last night’s Mark Loretta home run, time to start taking more calls from the Coulee Country’s dedicated sports fans.

And time for us to be off. Seven o’clock has rung from the Lutheran church steeple.

In French Landing, things are getting into high gear. No one lies abed long in this part of the world, and we must speed along to the end of our tour. Things are going to start happening soon, and they may happen fast. Still, we have done well, and we have only one more stop to make before arriving at our final destination.

We rise on the warm summer updrafts and hover for a moment by the KDCU tower (we are close enough to hear the tik-tik-tik of the beacon and the low, rather sinister hum of electricity), looking north and taking our bearings. Eight miles upriver is the town of Great Bluff, named for the limestone outcropping that rises there. The outcropping is reputed to be haunted, because in 1888 a chief of the Fox Indian tribe (Far Eyes was his name) assembled all his warriors, shamans, squaws, and children and told them to leap to their deaths, thereby escaping some hideous fate he had glimpsed in his dreams. Far Eyes’s followers, like Jim Jones’s, did as they were bidden.

We won’t go that far upriver, however; we have enough ghosts to deal with right here in French Landing. Let us instead fly over Nailhouse Row once more (the Harleys are gone; Beezer St. Pierre has led the Thunder Five off to their day’s work at the brewery), over Queen Street and Maxton Elder Care (Burny’s down there, still looking out his window ?? ugh), to Bluff Street. This is almost the countryside again. Even now, in the twenty-first century, the towns in Coulee Country give up quickly to the woods and the fields.

Herman Street is a left turn from Bluff Street, in an area that is not quite town and not quite city. Here, in a sturdy brick house sitting at the end of a half-mile meadow as yet undiscovered by the developers (even here there are a few developers, unknowing agents of slippage), lives Dale Gilbertson with his wife, Sarah, and his six-year-old son, David.

We can’t stay long, but let us at least drift in through the kitchen window for a moment. It’s open, after all, and there is room for us to perch right here on the counter, between the Silex and the toaster. Sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper and shoveling Special K into his mouth without tasting it (he has forgotten both the sugar and the sliced banana in his distress at seeing yet another Wendell Green byline on the front page of the Herald), is Chief Gilbertson himself. This morning he is without doubt the unhappiest man in French Landing. We will meet his only competition for that booby prize soon, but for the moment, let us stick with Dale.

The Fisherman, he thinks mournfully, his reflections on this subject very similar to those of Bobby Dulac and Tom Lund. Why didn’t you name him something a little more turn-of-the-century, you troublesome scribbling fuck? Something a little bit local? Dahmerboy, maybe, that’d be good.

Ah, but Dale knows why. The similarities between Albert Fish, who did his work in New York, and their boy here in French Landing are just too good ?? too tasty ?? to be ignored. Fish strangled his victims, as both Amy St. Pierre and Johnny Irkenham were apparently strangled; Fish dined on his victims, as both the girl and the boy were apparently dined upon; both Fish and the current fellow showed an especial liking for the . . . well, for the posterior regions of the anatomy.

Dale looks at his cereal, then drops his spoon into the mush and pushes the bowl away with the side of his hand.

And the letters. Can’t forget the letters.

Dale glances down at his briefcase, crouched at the side of his chair like a faithful dog. The file is in there, and it draws him like a rotted, achy tooth draws the tongue. Maybe he can keep his hands off it, at least while he’s here at home, where he plays toss with his son and makes love to his wife, but keeping his mind off it . . . that’s a whole ‘nother thing, as they also say in these parts.

Albert Fish wrote a long and horribly explicit letter to the mother of Grace Budd, the victim who finally earned the old cannibal a trip to the electric chair. (“What a thrill electrocution will be!” Fish reputedly told his jailers. “The only one I haven’t tried!”) The current doer has written similar letters, one addressed to Helen Irkenham, the other to Amy’s father, the awful (but genuinely grief-stricken, in Dale’s estimation) Armand “Beezer” St. Pierre. It would be good if Dale could believe these letters were written by some troublemaker not otherwise connected to the murders, but both contain information that has been withheld from the press, information that presumably only the killer could know.

Dale at last gives in to temptation (how well Henry Leyden would understand) and hauls up his briefcase. He opens it and puts a thick file where his cereal bowl lately rested. He returns the briefcase to its place by his chair, then opens the file (it is marked ST. PIERRE/IRKENHAM rather than FISHERMAN). He leafs past heartbreaking school photos of two smiling, gap-toothed children, past state medical examiner reports too horrible to read and crime-scene photos too horrible to look at (ah, but he must look at them, again and again he must look at them ?? the blood-slicked chains, the flies, the open eyes). There are also various transcripts, the longest being the interview with Spencer Hovdahl, who found the Irkenham boy and who was, very briefly, considered a suspect.

Next come Xerox copies of three letters. One had been sent to George and Helen Irkenham (addressed to Helen alone, if it made any difference). One went to Armand “Beezer” St. Pierre (addressed just that way, too, nickname and all). The third had been sent to the mother of Grace Budd, of New York City, following the murder of her daughter in the late spring of 1928.

Dale lays the three of them out, side by side.

Grace sat in my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her. So Fish had written to Mrs. Budd.

Amy sat in my lap and hugged me. I made up my mind to eat her. So had Beezer St. Pierre’s correspondent written, and was it any wonder the man had threatened to burn the French Landing police station to the ground? Dale doesn’t like the son of a bitch, but has to admit he might feel the same way in Beezer’s shoes.

I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get her blood on them. Fish, to Mrs. Budd.

I went around back of the hen-house and stripped all my cloes off. New if I did not I would get his blood on them. Anonymous, to Helen Irkenham. And here was a question: How could a mother receive a letter like that and retain her sanity? Was that possible? Dale thought not. Helen answered questions coherently, had even offered him tea the last time he was out there, but she had a glassy, poleaxed look in her eye that suggested she was running entirely on instruments.

Three letters, two new, one almost seventy-five years old. And yet all three are so similar. The St. Pierre letter and the Irkenham letter had been hand-printed by someone who was left-handed, according to the state experts. The paper was plain white Hammermill mimeo, available in every Office Depot and Staples in America. The pen used had probably been a Bic ?? now, there was a lead.

Fish to Mrs. Budd, back in ’28: I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished. She died a virgin.

Anonymous to Beezer St. Pierre: I did NOT fuck her tho I could of had I wished. She died a VIRGIN.

Anonymous to Helen Irkenham: This may comfort you I did NOT fuck him tho I could of had I wished. He died a VIRGIN.

Dale’s out of his depth here and knows it, but he hopes he isn’t a complete fool. This doer, although he did not sign his letters with the old cannibal’s name, clearly wanted the connection to be made. He had done everything but leave a few dead trout at the dumping sites.

Sighing bitterly, Dale puts the letters back into the file, the file back into the briefcase.

“Dale? Honey?” Sarah’s sleepy voice, from the head of the stairs.

Dale gives the guilty jump of a man who has almost been caught doing something nasty and latches his briefcase. “I’m in the kitchen,” he calls back. No need to worry about waking Davey; he sleeps like the dead until at least seven-thirty every morning.

“Going in late?”

“Uh-huh.” He often goes in late, then makes up for it by working until seven or eight or even nine in the evening. Wendell Green hasn’t made a big deal of that . . . at least not so far, but give him time. Talk about your cannibals!

“Give the flowers a drink before you go, would you? It’s been so dry.”

“You bet.” Watering Sarah’s flowers is a chore Dale likes. He gets some of his best thinking done with the garden hose in his hand.

A pause from upstairs . . . but he hasn’t heard her slippers shuffling back toward the bedroom. He waits. And at last: “You okay, hon?”

“Fine,” he calls back, pumping what he hopes will be the right degree of heartiness into his voice.

“Because you were still tossing around when I dropped off.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Do you know what Davey asked me last night while I was washing his hair?”

Dale rolls his eyes. He hates these long-distance conversations. Sarah seems to love them. He gets up and pours himself another cup of coffee. “No, what?”

“He asked, ?®Is Daddy going to lose his job?’ “

” Dale pauses with the cup halfway to his lips. “What did you say?”

“I said no. Of course.”

“Then you said the right thing.”

He waits, but there is no more. Having injected him with one more dram of poisonous worry ?? David’s fragile psyche, as well as what a certain party might do to the boy, should David be so unlucky as to run afoul of him ?? Sarah shuffles back to their room and, presumably, to the shower beyond.

Dale goes back to the table, sips his coffee, then puts his hand to his forehead and closes his eyes. In this moment we can see precisely how frightened and miserable he is. Dale is just forty-two and a man of abstemious habits, but in the cruel morning light coming through the window by which we entered, he looks, for the moment, anyway, a sickly sixty.

He is concerned about his job, knows that if the fellow who killed Amy and Johnny keeps it up, he will almost certainly be turned out of office the following year. He is also concerned about Davey . . . although Davey isn’t his chief concern, for, like Fred Marshall, he cannot actually conceive that the Fisherman could take his and Sarah’s own child. No, it is the other children of French Landing he is more worried about, possibly the children of Centralia and Arden as well.

His worst fear is that he is simply not good enough to catch the son of a bitch. That he will kill a third, a fourth, perhaps an eleventh and twelfth.

God knows he has requested help. And gotten it . . . sort of. There are two State Police detectives assigned to the case, and the FBI guy from Madison keeps checking in (on an informal basis, though; the FBI is not officially part of the investigation). Even his outside help has a surreal quality for Dale, one that has been partially caused by an odd coincidence of their names. The FBI guy is Agent John P. Redding. The state detectives are Perry Brown and Jeffrey Black. So he has Brown, Black, and Redding on his team. The Color Posse, Sarah calls them. All three making it clear that they are strictly working support, at least for the time being. Making it clear that Dale Gilbertson is the man standing on ground zero.

Christ, but I wish Jack would sign on to help me with this, Dale thinks. I’d deputize him in a second, just like in one of those corny old Western movies.

Yes indeed. In a second.

When Jack had first come to French Landing, almost four years ago, Dale hadn’t known what to make of the man his officers immediately dubbed Hollywood. By the time the two of them had nailed Thornberg Kinderling ?? yes, inoffensive little Thornberg Kinderling, hard to believe but absolutely true ?? he knew exactly what to make of him. The guy was the finest natural detective Dale had ever met in his life.

The only natural detective, that’s what you mean.

Yes, all right. The only one. And although they had shared the collar (at the L.A. newcomer’s absolute insistence), it had been Jack’s detective work that had turned the trick. He was almost like one of those story-book detectives . . . Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, one of those. Except that Jack didn’t exactly deduct, nor did he go around tapping his temple and talking about his “little gray cells.” He . . .

“He listens,” Dale mutters, and gets up. He heads for the back door, then returns for his briefcase. He’ll put it in the back seat of his cruiser before he waters the flower beds. He doesn’t want those awful pictures in his house any longer than strictly necessary.

He listens.

Like the way he’d listened to Janna Massengale, the bartender at the Taproom. Dale had had no idea why Jack was spending so much time with the little chippy; it had even crossed his mind that Mr. Los Angeles Linen Slacks was trying to hustle her into bed so he could go back home and tell all his friends on Rodeo Drive that he’d gotten himself a little piece of the cheese up there in Wisconsin, where the air was rare and the legs were long and strong. But that hadn’t been it at all. He had been listening, and finally she had told him what he needed to hear.

Yeah, shurr, people get funny ticks when they’re drinking, Janna had said. There’s this one guy who starts doing this after a couple of belts. She had pinched her nostrils together with the tips of her fingers . . . only with her hand turned around so the palm pointed out.

Jack, still smiling easily, still sipping a club soda: Always with the palm out? Like this? And mimicked the gesture.

Janna, smiling, half in love: That’s it, doll ?? you’re a quick study.

Jack: Sometimes, I guess. What’s this fella’s name, darlin’?

Janna: Kinderling. Thornberg Kinderling. She giggled. Only, after a drink or two ?? once he’s started up with that pinchy thing ?? he wants everyone to call him Thorny.

Jack, still with his own smile: And does he drink Bombay gin, darlin’? One ice cube, little trace of bitters?

Janna’s smile starting to fade, now looking at him as if he might be some kind of wizard: How’d you know that?

But how he knew it didn’t matter, because that was really the whole package, done up in a neat bow. Case closed, game over, zip up your fly.

Eventually, Jack had flown back to Los Angeles with Thornberg Kinderling in custody ?? Thornberg Kinderling, just an inoffensive, bespectacled farm-insurance salesman from Centralia, wouldn’t say boo to a goose, wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful, wouldn’t dare ask your mamma for a drink of water on a hot day, but he had killed two prostitutes in the City of Angels. No strangulation for Thorny; he had done his work with a Buck knife, which Dale himself had eventually traced to Lapham Sporting Goods, the nasty little trading post a door down from the Sand Bar, Centralia’s grungiest drinking establishment.

By then DNA testing had nailed Kinderling’s ass to the barn door, but Jack had been glad to have the provenance of the murder weapon anyway. He had called Dale personally to thank him, and Dale, who’d never been west of Denver in his life, had been almost absurdly touched by the courtesy. Jack had said several times during the course of the investigation that you could never have enough evidence when the doer was a genuine bad guy, and Thorny Kinderling had turned out to be about as bad as you could want. He’d gone the insanity route, of course, and Dale ?? who had privately hoped he might be called upon to testify ?? was delighted when the jury rejected the plea and sentenced him to consecutive life terms.

And what made all that happen? What had been the first cause? Why, a man listening. That was all. Listening to a lady bartender who was used to having her breasts stared at while her words most commonly went in one ear of the man doing the staring and out the other. And who had Hollywood Jack listened to before he had listened to Janna Massengale? Some Sunset Strip hooker, it seemed . . . or more likely a whole bunch of them. (What would you call that, anyway? Dale wonders absently as he goes out to the garage to get his trusty hose. A shimmy of streetwalkers? A strut of hookers?) None of them could have picked Thornberg Kinderling out of a lineup, because the Thornberg who visited L.A. surely hadn’t looked much like the Thornberg who traveled around to the farm-supply companies in the Coulee and over in Minnesota. L.A. Thorny had worn a wig, contacts instead of specs, and a little false mustache.

“The most brilliant thing was the skin darkener,” Jack had said. “Just a little, just enough to make him look like a native.”

“Dramatics all four years at French Landing High School,” Dale had replied grimly. “I looked it up. The little bastard played Don Juan his junior year, do you believe it?”

A lot of sly little changes (too many for a jury to swallow an insanity plea, it seemed), but Thorny had forgotten that one revelatory little signature, that trick of pinching his nostrils together with the palm of his hand turned outward. Some prostitute had remembered it, though, and when she mentioned it ?? only in passing, Dale has no doubt, just as Janna Massengale did ?? Jack heard it.

Because he listened.

Called to thank me for tracing the knife, and again to tell me how the jury came back, Dale thinks, but that second time he wanted something, too. And I knew what it was. Even before he opened his mouth I knew.

Because, while he is no genius detective like his friend from the Golden State, Dale had not missed the younger man’s unexpected, immediate response to the landscape of western Wisconsin. Jack had fallen in love with the Coulee Country, and Dale would have wagered a good sum that it had been love at first look. It had been impossible to mistake the expression on his face as they drove from French Landing to Cen-tralia, from Centralia to Arden, from Arden to Miller: wonder, pleasure, almost a kind of rapture. To Dale, Jack had looked like a man who has come to a place he has never been before only to discover he is back home.

“Man, I can’t get over this,” he’d said once to Dale. The two of them had been riding in Dale’s old Caprice cruiser, the one that just wouldn’t stay aligned (and sometimes the horn stuck, which could be embarrassing). “Do you realize how lucky you are to live here, Dale? It must be one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Dale, who had lived in the Coulee his entire life, had not disagreed.

Toward the end of their final conversation concerning Thornberg Kinderling, Jack had reminded Dale of how he’d once asked (not quite kidding, not quite serious, either) for Dale to let him know if a nice little place ever came on the market in Dale’s part of the world, something out of town. And Dale had known at once from Jack’s tone ?? the almost anxious drop in his voice ?? that the kidding was over.

“So you owe me,” Dale murmurs, shouldering the hose. “You owe me, you bastard.” Of course he has asked Jack to lend an unofficial hand with the Fisherman investigation, but Jack has refused . . . almost with a kind of fear.

I’m retired, he’d said brusquely. If you don’t know what that word means, Dale, we can look it up in the dictionary together.

But it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Of course it is. How can a man not yet thirty-five be retired? Especially one who is so infernally good at the job?

“You owe me, baby,” he says again, now walking along the side of the house toward the bib faucet. The sky above is cloudless; the well-watered lawn is green; there is nary a sign of slippage, not out here on Herman Street. Yet perhaps there is, and perhaps we feel it. A kind of discordant hum, like the sound of all those lethal volts coursing through the steel struts of the KDCU tower.

But we have stayed here too long. We must take wing again and proceed to our final destination of this early morning. We don’t know everything yet, but we know three important things: first, that French Landing is a town in terrible distress; second, that a few people ( Judy Marshall, for one; Charles Burnside, for another) understand on some deep level that the town’s ills go far beyond the depredations of a single sick pedophile-murderer; third, that we have met no one capable of consciously recognizing the force ?? the slippage ?? that has now come to bear on this quiet town hard by Tom and Huck’s river. Each person we’ve met is, in his own way, as blind as Henry Leyden. This is as true of the folks we haven’t so far encountered ?? Beezer St. Pierre, Wendell Green, the Color Posse ?? as it is of those we have.

Our hearts groan for a hero. And while we may not find one (this is the twenty-first century, after all, the days not of d’Artagnan and Jack Aubrey but of George W. Bush and Dirtysperm), we can perhaps find a man who was a hero once upon a time. Let us therefore search out an old friend, one we last glimpsed a thousand and more miles east of here, on the shore of the steady Atlantic. Years have passed and they have in some ways lessened the boy who was; he has forgotten much and has spent a good part of his adult life maintaining that state of amnesia. But he is French Landing’s only hope, so let us take wing and fly almost due east, back over the woods and fields and gentle hills.

Mostly, we see miles of unbroken farmland: regimental cornfields, luxuriant hay fields, fat yellow swaths of alfalfa. Dusty, narrow drives lead to white farmhouses and their arrays of tall barns, granaries, cylindrical cement-block silos, and long metal equipment sheds. Men in denim jackets are moving along the well-worn paths between the houses and the barns. We can already smell the sunlight. Its odor, richly compacted of butter, yeast, earth, growth, and decay, will intensify as the sun ascends and the light grows stronger.

Below us, Highway 93 intersects Highway 35 at the center of tiny Centralia. The empty parking lot behind the Sand Bar awaits the noisy arrival of the Thunder Five, who customarily spend their Saturday afternoons, evenings, and nights in the enjoyment of the Sand Bar’s pool tables, hamburgers, and pitchers of that ambrosia to the creation of which they have devoted their eccentric lives, Kingsland Brewing Company’s finest product and a beer that can hold up its creamy head among anything made in a specialty microbrewery or a Belgian monastery, Kingsland Ale. If Beezer St. Pierre, Mouse, and company say it is the greatest beer in the world, why should we doubt them? Not only do they know much more about beer than we do, they called upon every bit of the knowledge, skill, expertise, and seat-of-the-pants inspiration at their disposal to make Kingsland Ale a benchmark of the brewer’s art. In fact, they moved to French Landing because the brewery, which they had selected after careful deliberation, was willing to work with them.

To invoke Kingsland Ale is to wish for a good-sized mouthful of the stuff, but we put temptation behind us; 7:30 A.M. is far too early for drinking anything but fruit juice, coffee, and milk (except for the likes of Wanda Kinderling, and Wanda thinks of beer, even Kingsland Ale, as a dietary supplement to Aristocrat vodka); and we are in search of our old friend and the closest we can come to a hero, whom we last saw as a boy on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. We are not about to waste time; we are on the move, right here and now. The miles fly past beneath us, and along Highway 93 the fields narrow as the hills rise up on both sides.

For all our haste, we must take this in, we must see where we are.