The woman in the woods, p.1
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       The Woman in the Woods, p.1
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           John Connolly
The Woman in the Woods


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  For Steve Fisher

  1

  And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten . . .

  —Joel 2:25

  CHAPTER

  I

  The bar was one of the more recent additions to Portland’s waterfront, although the term “recent” was relative given the rapid pace of development in the city. Parker wondered if at some point every person reached an age where he or she prayed for a pause to progress, although often it seemed to him that progress was just so much window dressing, because people tended to remain much as they had always been. Still, he wished folks would occasionally leave the windows as they were, for a while at least.

  The presence of the bar was indicated solely by a sign on the sidewalk, required because the establishment was set back from the street on the first floor of an old warehouse, and would otherwise have been difficult, if not impossible, to find.

  Perhaps this was why it appealed to Louis. Given the opportunity, Louis might even have dispensed with the sign entirely, and supplied details of the bar’s location only to those whose company he was prepared to tolerate, which meant that maybe five people in the world would have been burdened with the responsibility of keeping it in business.

  No such tactics were required on this night to offer Louis the peace he desired. Only a handful of customers were present: a young couple at a corner table, two older men eating burgers at the bar, and Parker and Louis. Parker had just been served a glass of wine. Louis was drinking a martini, very dry. It might not have been his first, but with Louis it was always difficult to tell.

  “How is he?” Parker asked.

  “Confused. In pain.”

  Days earlier, Louis’s partner, Angel, had been relieved of a tumor the size of an egg in a New York hospital, along with a length of his large intestine. The procedure hadn’t gone entirely well, and the recuperation period would be difficult, involving chemotherapy sessions every three weeks for the next two years, while the threat of ancillary growths remained. The call to inform Parker of Louis’s presence in the city of Portland had therefore come as a surprise. Parker had intended to travel down to New York to visit Angel and offer Louis whatever support he could. Instead, Louis was sitting in a Portland bar while his partner lay in a hospital bed, medicated up to his eyeballs.

  But then, Louis and Angel were unique unto themselves: criminals, lovers, killers of men, and crusaders for a cause that had no name beyond Parker’s own. They kept to their particular rhythm as they walked through life.

  “And how are you?” asked Parker.

  “Angry,” said Louis. “Concerned and frightened, but mostly angry.”

  Parker said nothing, but sipped his wine and listened to a ship calling in the night.

  “I didn’t expect to be back here so soon,” Louis continued, as though in answer to Parker’s unvoiced question, “but there were some things I needed from the condo. And anyway, the New York apartment just didn’t feel right without Angel next to me. It was like the walls were closing in. How can that be? How can a place seem smaller when there’s one person missing from it? Portland’s different. It’s less his place. So I visited with him this afternoon, then took a car straight to LaGuardia. I wanted to escape.”

  He sipped his cocktail.

  “And I can’t go to the hospital every day. I hate seeing him that way.” He turned to look at Parker. “So talk to me about something else.”

  Parker examined the world through the filter of his wineglass.

  “The Fulcis are considering buying a bar,” he said.

  Paulie and Tony Fulci were Portland’s answer to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, assuming Tweedledum and Tweedledee were heavily—if unsuccessfully—medicated for psychosis, built like armored trucks, and prone to outbreaks of targeted violence that were often, but not always, the result of severe provocation, the Fulcis’ definition of which was fluid, and ranged from rudeness and poor parking to assault and attempted murder.

  Louis almost spat out his drink.

  “You’re fucking kidding. They haven’t told me anything about it.”

  “Maybe they were afraid you might choke—and not without justification.”

  “But a bar is a business. With patrons. You know, regular human beings.”

  “Well, they’re banned from almost every drinking hole in this city, with the exception of the Bear, and that’s only because Dave Evans doesn’t want to hurt their feelings. Also, they help keep bad elements at bay, although Dave sometimes struggles to imagine an element worse than the Fulcis themselves. But Paulie says that they’re worried about falling into a rut, and they have some money from an old bequest that they’re thinking of investing.”

  “A bequest? What kind of bequest?”

  “Probably the kind made at gunpoint. Seems they’ve been sitting on it for years.”

  “Just letting it cool down a little, huh?”

  “Cool down a lot.”

  “They planning on fronting this place themselves, or would they actually like to attract a clientele?”

  “They’re looking for a stooge.”

  “They’ll need to find someone crazier than they are.”

  “I believe that’s proving an obstacle to progress.”

  “Would you front a bar run by the Fulcis?”

  “At least it would be guaranteed free of trouble.”

  “No, it would be guaranteed free of outside trouble.”

  “If they manage to open, you’ll be obliged to support them. They’ll be very unhappy otherwise. You know how fond they are of you and Angel.”

  “Which is your fault.”

  “I simply facilitated an introduction.”

  “Like rats facilitated the introduction of the plague.”

  “Tut-tut.”

  Louis finished his drink and raised his glass for another.

  “You know,” he said, “that news has cheered me up some.”

  “I thought it might.”

  “You working on anything?”

  “Just some paper for Moxie. Routine stuff.”

  Moxie Castin was one of Portland’s more colorful legal figures. With his ill-fitting suits and huckster manner, Moxie appeared completely untrustworthy, but in Parker’s experience only trustworthy individuals were prepared to embrace a livery that suggested the opposite. Moxie paid well and on time, which made him a rara avis not only in legal circles but in most other circles as well. Finally, Moxie was privy to most—although not all—of Parker’s affairs, including the discreet arrangement whereby the Federal Bureau of Investigation paid a retainer into Parker’s account each month in return for consultancy services. It was not a state of affairs of which Moxie unconditionally approved, although at least Parker also recognized it for the devil’s bargain it was.

  “You look tired for a man dealing with routine stuff,” said Louis.

  “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

  “Bad dreams?”

  “I’m not sure I can always tell the difference between dreams and reality. Waking sometimes seems as bad as sleeping.”

  Parker was already recognizing signs of the onset of a depression that had shadowed him even in adolescence, but had begun to trouble him more deeply since the gun attack that
almost killed him. He knew that soon he would have to seek seclusion. He would want—even need—to be alone, because it was at those times that his dead daughter most often appeared to him.

  “Angel said something to me once.”

  Parker waited, and it was as though Louis had heard his thoughts, or had glimpsed the flickering whiteness of a lost child in Parker’s eyes.

  “He said he thought you saw Jennifer, that she spoke to you.”

  “Jennifer’s dead.”

  “With respect, that’s not the point.”

  “Like I said, I find it hard to tell what are dreams and what are not.”

  “You know, I don’t think you find it hard at all.”

  Slow time passed before Louis spoke again.

  “I used to dream of my father.”

  Parker knew that Louis’s father had fallen into the hands of bigoted, violent men who hanged him from a tree before setting him alight. Many years later Louis returned for those responsible, and burned the tree on which his father had died.

  “He would come to me in my sleep,” said Louis, “wreathed in fire, and his mouth would move as he tried to speak, except nothing ever came out, or nothing I could understand. I used to wonder what he was trying to say. In the end, I figured he was warning me. I think he was telling me not to go looking for vengeance, because he knew what I’d become if I did.

  “So I dreamed him, and I knew I was dreaming him, but when I woke I’d smell him in the room, all shit and gasoline, all smoke and charred meat. I’d tell myself I was imagining it, that these were all smells I knew from before, and the force of the dream was just tricking my mind into putting them together. But it was strong, so strong: it would be in my hair and on my skin for the rest of the day, and sometimes other folks picked up on it too. They’d comment, and I wouldn’t have an answer for them, or none they’d want to hear, and maybe none I’d want to hear either.

  “It would frighten me. Frightened me for most of my life. Angel knew, but no one else. He smelled it on me, smelled it after my nightmares when I woke up sweating beside him in bed, and I didn’t want to lie to him, because I’ve never lied to him. So I told him, just like I’m telling you, and he believed me, just like I know you believe me.

  “My father doesn’t come to me so much anymore, but when he does I’m no longer troubled. You know why? Because of you. Because I’ve seen things with you, experienced things that made me understand I wasn’t crazy, and I wasn’t alone. More than that, there’s a consolation to it, to all of this. I think that’s why I came up here tonight, and why I called you. If I lose Angel, I know I’ll find him again. I’ll tear this world apart before I do, and maybe I’ll die burning like my father burned, but that won’t be the end for Angel and me. He’ll wait for me on the other side, and we’ll go together into whatever waits. This I know because of you. I’ve hurt a lot of people, some that didn’t deserve what came to them and some that did, although the distinction meant nothing to me then, and doesn’t mean a whole lot now. I could have questioned what I did, but I chose not to. I have blood on my hands, and I’ll shed more before I’m done with this life, but I’ll shed it because I’m following a different path, your path, and I’ll sacrifice myself because I have to, because it’s my reparation. In return, I’ll be allowed to stay with Angel forever. That’s the deal. You tell that to your daughter next time you see her. You tell her to bring it to her god.”

  Parker stared hard at him.

  “Just how many cocktails have you had?”

  The stillness seemed to encompass the entire bar. All others vanished. It was only these two, and these two alone.

  And Louis smiled.

  CHAPTER

  II

  Over ice-locked forest, over snow-frozen fields, to the outskirts of a town in the northwest of the state, to a house by the edge of the Great North Woods, to—

  To a fairy tale.

  The boy’s name was Daniel Weaver. He was five years old, with the kind of seriousness to his face found only in the features of the very young and the very ancient. His eyes, quite dark, were fixed on the woman before him: Holly, his mother, although had one been separated from the other, no stranger would have reunited them by sight alone. She was blond where Daniel was ebony, ruddy where he was wan, light to his shade. She loved him—had loved him from the first—but his temperament, like his coloring, was alien to hers. A changeling, some might have said, left in the cradle while her true son—less troubled than this one, gentler in his soul—was taken to dwell deep below the earth with older beings, and light up their hollows with his spirit.

  Except it would not have been true. A stolen child Daniel might be, but not in such a way.

  The tantrums came upon him with the suddenness of summer storms: ferocious tumults accompanied by shouts and tears, and a potential for violence to be visited only on inanimate objects. In his rages no toy was safe, no door unworthy of a kick or a slam; but terrible as they were, these moods remained rare and short-lived, and when they had spent themselves the boy would appear dazed in the aftermath, as though shocked by his own capacities.

  If the heights of his joys never quite matched these depths, well, no matter, although Holly sometimes wished her son could be a little more at ease with the world, a little less guarded. His skin was too thin, and outside of a few familiar environments—his home, his grandfather’s house, the woods—he remained forever wary.

  And even behind the safety of his own walls, there would be moments like this one, instances when some strange fear overcame him so that he could not bear to be alone, and he could find solace only in his mother’s presence, and in the telling of a tale.

  The book in Holly Weaver’s hands was an edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales printed in 1909 by Constable of London, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. Some blank pages, of a different texture from the rest, had been added to the volume, although she could not have said why. It was still by far the most valuable book in the house, worth hundreds of dollars, according to the Internet. It would have been worth much more had it been signed by Rackham himself: those copies went for ten or fifteen thousand dollars, more money than Holly had ever possessed at any one time, and certainly more than she could ever imagine paying for a book.

  But Holly didn’t know much about book collecting, and would never have contemplated disposing of this one anyway, even had it been hers to sell. It was part of her son’s legacy, a point of connection with another woman, now departed.

  And it appeared that Daniel understood its importance, although it was never explained to him. Even in the worst of his tempers, he was always careful to spare his books, and this one maintained pride of place on his topmost shelf. When he was scared or fractious, she would read to him from it, and soon he would fall asleep. By now she felt she could recite most of the stories from memory, but taking the book from its shelf and opening it were elements of the ritual that could not be undone, and had to be followed precisely on each occasion.

  Even now, when the tale to be told was not printed in its pages.

  “Tell me the special story,” Daniel said, and she knew then that this was one of those nights when he was troubled by emotions too complex to be named.

  “Which story?” she replied, because this, too, was part of the ritual.

  “The story of the Woman in the Woods.”

  Holly had given it this title. Call it a moment of weakness. Call it a veiled confession.

  “Don’t you want to hear one of the others?”

  A shake of the head, and those oh-so-black eyes unblinking.

  “No, only that one.”

  She did not argue, but turned to the back of the book, where a length of red thread held in place a sheaf of additional pages. She was no Rackham, but she’d always been good at art in school, and had poured her heart into creating this story for Daniel. She’d even sized and cut the paper to match the dimensions of those in the original volume, and the tale itself was handwritten with calligraphic precis
ion.

  She cleared her throat. This was her penance. If the truth were ever discovered, she would be able to say that she had tried to tell him of it, in her fashion.

  “Once upon a time,” she began, “there was a young girl who was spirited away by an ogre . . .”

  * * *

  LATER, WHEN DANIEL WAS sleeping, and the book restored to its home, Holly lay in her own bed and stared at the ceiling, her punishment commencing.

  Because this, too, was always the same.

  Once upon a time there was a young girl who was spirited away by an ogre. The ogre forced the princess to marry him, and she gave birth to a boy.

  Holly’s eyes began to close.

  The boy was not ugly like the ogre, but beautiful like his mother. The ogre was angry because he wanted a son who was just as vile as he, so he said to the princess:

  The woods, five years earlier. Snow falling, slowly concealing the newly disturbed ground.

  “If I cannot make a boy who is blighted on the outside, then I will make him foul on the inside. I will be cruel to him, and in doing so I will cause him to be cruel unto others.”

  A man walking away, a pick and shovel over his right shoulder, his long hair trailing behind him in the wind.

  “I will be violent with him, and in doing so I will cause him to do violence. I will be merciless with him, and in doing so he will deny mercy.”

  Darkness and dirt: a grave.

  “In this way, I will form him in my image, and I will make him my son . . .”

  CHAPTER

  III

  Cadillac, Indiana, was about as far from interesting as a place could get without fading entirely to gray. It had the basic infrastructure required for a minimal level of human satisfaction—schools, bars, restaurants, gas stations, two strip malls, a couple of factories—without anything approaching a heart or soul, so it was less a town than some revenant version of the same, restored from seemingly inevitable decay to a simulacrum of life.

 
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