The killing kind, p.11
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       The Killing Kind, p.11

           John Connolly
 

  My fingers smelled musty from turning the yellowed clippings, and I found myself rubbing my hands on my trousers in an attempt to rid myself of the odor. Faulkner’s world didn’t sound like any that I wanted to live in, I thought as I returned the file to the librarian. It was a world in which salvation was taken out of our hands, in which there was no possibility of atonement; a world peopled by the ranks of the damned, from whom the handful to be saved stood aloof. And if they were damned, then they didn’t matter to anyone; whatever happened to them, however awful, was no more or less than they deserved.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  As I headed back to my house, a UPS truck shadowed me from the highway and pulled up behind me as I entered the drive. The deliveryman handed me a special delivery parcel from the lawyer Arthur Franklin, while casting a wary glance at the blackened mailbox.

  “You got a grudge against the mailman?” he asked.

  “Junk mail,” I explained.

  He nodded without looking at me as I signed for the package. “It’s a bitch,” he agreed, before hurrying into his truck and driving quickly onto the road.

  Arthur Franklin’s package contained a videotape. I went back to the house and put the tape in my VCR. After a few seconds some cheesy easy-listening music began to play and the words Crushem Productions presents appeared on the screen, followed by the title, A Bug’s Death, and a director’s credit for one “Rarvey Hagle.” Let the Orange County prosecutor’s office chew on that little conundrum for a while.

  For the next thirty minutes I watched as women in various stages of undress squashed an assortment of spiders, roaches, mantids, and small rodents beneath their high-heeled shoes. In most cases, the bugs and mice seemed to have been glued or stapled to a board and they struggled a lot before they died. I fast-forwarded through the rest, then ejected the tape and considered burning it. Instead I decided to give it right back to Arthur Franklin when I met him, preferably by jamming it into his mouth, but I still couldn’t understand why Al Z had put Franklin and his client in touch with me in the first place, unless he thought my sex life might be getting a little staid.

  I was still wondering while I made a pot of coffee, poured a cup, and took it outside to drink at the tree stump that my grandfather, years before, had converted into a table by adding a cross section of an oak to it. I had an hour or so to kill before I was due to meet with Franklin and I found that sitting at the table, where my grandfather and I used to sit together, sometimes helped me to relax and think. The Portland Press Herald and The New York Times lay beside me, the pages gently rustling in the breeze.

  My grandfather’s hands had been steady when he made this rude table, planing the oak until it was perfectly flat, then adding a coat of wood protector to it so that it shined in the sun. Later, those hands were not so still and he had trouble writing. His memory began to fail him. A sheriff’s deputy, the son of one of his old comrades on the force, brought him back to the house one evening after he found him wandering down by the Scarborough cemetery on Old County Road, searching fruitlessly for the grave of his wife, so I hired a nurse for him.

  He was still strong in body; each morning, he would do pushups and bench presses. Sometimes he would do laps around the yard, running gently but consistently until the back of his T-shirt was soaked in sweat. He would be a little more lucid for a time after that, the nurse would tell us, before his brain clouded once again and the cells continued to blink out of existence like the lights of a great city as the long night draws on. More than my own father and mother, that old man had guided me and tried to shape me into a good man. I wondered if he would have been disappointed at the man I had become.

  My thoughts were disturbed by the sound of a car pulling into my drive. Seconds later a black Cirrus drew up at the edge of the grass. There were two people inside, a man driving and a woman sitting in the passenger seat. The man killed the engine and stepped from the car, but the woman remained seated. His back was to the sun so he was almost a silhouette at first, thin and dark like a sheathed blade. The Smith & Wesson lay beneath the arts section of the Times, its butt visible only to me. I watched him carefully as he approached, my hand resting casually inches from the gun. The approaching stranger made me uneasy. Maybe it was his manner, his apparent familiarity with my property; or it could have been the woman who stared at me through the windshield, straggly gray brown hair hanging to her shoulders.

  Or perhaps it was because I recalled this man eating an ice cream on a cool morning, his lips sucking busily away like a spider draining a fly, watching me as I drove down Portland Street.

  He stopped ten feet from me, the fingers of his right hand unwrapping something held in the palm of his left, until two cubes of sugar were revealed. He popped them into his mouth and began to suck, then folded the wrapper carefully and placed it in the pocket of his jacket. He wore brown polyester trousers held up with a cheap leather belt, a once bright yellow shirt that had now faded to the color of a jaundice victim’s face, a vile brown-and-yellow tie, and a brown check polyester jacket. A brown hat shaded his face, and now, as he paused, he removed it and held it loosely in his left hand, patting it against his thigh in a slow, deliberate rhythm.

  He was of medium height, five-ten or so, and almost emaciated, his clothes hanging loosely on his body. He walked slowly and carefully, as if he were so fragile that a misstep might cause his leg to snap. His hair was wiry, a combination of red and gray through which patches of pink skin showed. His eyebrows were also red, as were the lashes. Dark brown eyes that were far too small for his face peered out from beneath strange hoods of flesh, as if the skin had been pulled down from his forehead and up from his cheeks, then stitched in place by the corners of his eyes. Blue red bags swelled up from below, so that his vision appeared to be entirely dependent on two narrow triangles of white and brown by the bridge of his nose. That nose was long and elongated at the tip, hanging almost to his upper lip. His mouth was very thin and his chin was slightly cleft. He was probably in his fifties, I thought, but I sensed that his apparent fragility was deceptive. His eyes were not those of a man who fears for his safety with every footstep.

  “Warm today,” he said, the hat still slapping softly against his leg.

  I nodded but didn’t reply.

  He inclined his head back in the direction of the road. “I see you had an accident with your mailbox.” He smiled, revealing uneven yellow teeth with a pronounced gap at the front, and I knew immediately that he had been responsible for the recluses.

  “Spiders,” I replied. “I burned them all.”

  The smile died. “That’s unfortunate.”

  “You seem to be taking it kind of personally.”

  His mouth worked at the sugar lumps while his eyes locked on mine. “I like spiders,” he said.

  “They certainly burn well,” I replied. “Now, can I help you?”

  “I do hope so,” he said. “Or perhaps I can help you. Yes sir, I feel certain that I can help you.”

  His voice had an odd nasal quality that flattened his vowels and made his accent difficult to place, a task complicated further by the formal locutions of his speech. The smile gradually reappeared but those hooded eyes failed to alter in response. Instead, they maintained a watchful, vaguely malevolent quality, as if some entity had taken over the body of this odd, dated-looking man, hollowing out his form and controlling his progress by looking through the empty sockets in his head.

  “I don’t think I need your help.”

  He waggled a finger at me in disagreement, and for the first time, I got a good look at his hands. They were thin, absurdly so, and there was something insectlike about them as they emerged from the sleeves of his jacket. The middle finger seemed to be about five inches long and, in common with the rest of his digits, tapered to a point at the tip: not only the nail but the entire finger appeared to grow narrower and narrower. The fingernails themselves looked to be a quarter of an inch at their widest point and were stained a kind of yellow-
black. There were patches of short red hair below each of the knuckles, gradually expanding to cover most of the back of his hand and disappearing in tufts beneath his sleeve. They gave him a strange, feral quality.

  “Now, now, sir,” he said, his fingers waving the way an arachnid will sometimes raise its legs when it finds itself cornered. Their movements appeared to be unrelated to his words or to the language of the rest of the body. They were like separate creatures that had somehow managed to attach themselves to a host, constantly probing gently at the world around them.

  “Don’t be hasty,” he continued. “I admire independence as much as the next man, indeed I do. It is a laudable attribute in a man, sir, a laudable attribute, make no mistake about that, but it can lead him to do reckless things. Worse, sir, worse; it can cause him to interfere with the rights of those around him, sometimes without him even knowing.” His voice assumed a tone of awe at the ways of such men, and he shook his head slowly. “There you are, living your own life as you see fit, and you are causing pain and embarrassment to others by doing so. It’s a sin, sir, that’s what it is, a sin.”

  He folded his slim fingers across his stomach, still smiling, and waited for a response.

  “Who are you?” I said. There was an element of awe in my own voice as well. He was comical yet sinister, like a bad clown.

  “Permit me to introduce myself,” he said. “My name is Pudd, Mr. Pudd. At your service, sir.” He extended his right hand in greeting, but I didn’t reach out to take it. I couldn’t. It revolted me. A friend of my grandfather’s had once kept a wolf spider in a glass tank and one day, on a dare from the man’s son, I had touched its leg. The spider had shot away almost instantly, but not before I had felt the hairy, jointed nature of the thing. It was not an experience I wanted to repeat.

  The hand hung in midair for a moment, and once again the smile faltered briefly. Then Mr. Pudd took back his hand, and his fingers scuttled inside his jacket. I eased my right hand a few inches to the left and took hold of the gun beneath the newspapers, my thumb flicking the safety off. Mr. Pudd didn’t appear to notice the movement. At least, he gave no indication that he had, but I felt something change in his attitude toward me, like a black widow that believes it has cornered a beetle only to find itself staring into the eyes of a wasp. His jacket tightened around him as his hand searched and I saw the telltale bulge of his gun.

  “I think I’d prefer it if you left,” I said quietly.

  “Sadly, Mr. Parker, personal preference has nothing to do with this.” The smile faded, and Mr. Pudd’s mouth assumed an expression of exaggerated sorrow. “If the truth be known, sir, I would prefer not to be here at all. This is an unpleasant duty, but one that I am afraid you have brought upon yourself by your inconsiderate actions.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “I am talking about your harassment of Mr. Carter Paragon, your disregard for the work of the organization that he represents, and your insistence on attempting to connect the unfortunate death of a young woman with that same organization. The Fellowship is a religious body, Mr. Parker, with the rights accruing to such bodies under our fine Constitution. You are aware of the Constitution, are you not, Mr. Parker? You have heard of the First Amendment, have you not?”

  Throughout this speech, Mr. Pudd’s tone did not vary from one of quiet reasonableness. He spoke to me the way a parent speaks to an errant child. I made a note to add “patronizing” to “creepy” and “insectlike” where Mr. Pudd was concerned.

  “That, and the Second Amendment,” I said. “It seems like you’ve heard of that one too.” I removed my hand from beneath the newspaper and pointed the gun at him. I was glad to see that my hand didn’t shake.

  “This is most unfortunate, Mr. Parker,” he said in an aggrieved tone.

  “I agree, Mr. Pudd. I don’t like people coming onto my property carrying guns, or watching me while I conduct my business. It’s bad manners, and it makes me nervous.”

  Mr. Pudd swallowed, took his hand from inside his jacket, and moved both hands away from his body. “I meant you no offense, sir, but the servants of the Lord are afflicted with enemies on all sides.”

  “Surely God will protect you better than a gun?”

  “The Lord helps those who help themselves, Mr. Parker,” he replied.

  “I don’t think the Lord approves of breaking and entering,” I said, and Mr. Pudd’s eyebrow raised slightly.

  “Are you accusing me of something?”

  “Why, do you have something to confess?”

  “Not to you, Mr. Parker. Not to you.”

  Once again his fingers danced slowly in the air, but this time there appeared to be purpose in the movement and I wondered what it meant. It was only when I heard the car door open and the shadow of the woman advanced across the lawn that I knew. I stood quickly and moved back, raising the gun to shoulder height in a two-handed grip and aiming it at Mr. Pudd’s upper body.

  The woman approached from behind his left shoulder. She didn’t speak, but her hand was inside her thigh-length black coat. She wore no makeup and her face was very pale. Beneath her coat she wore a black pleated skirt that hung almost to her ankles, and a simple white blouse unbuttoned at the top, with a black scarf knotted around her neck. There was something deeply unpleasant about her looks, an ugliness from within that had seeped through her pores and blighted her skin. The nose was too flat for the face, the eyes too big and too white, the lips strangely bloated. Her chin was weak and receded into layers of flesh at her neck. No muscles moved in her face.

  Mr. Pudd turned his head slightly toward her but kept his eyes on me. “You know, my dear, I think Mr. Parker is frightened of us.”

  The woman’s expression didn’t change. She just kept moving forward.

  “Tell her to back off,” I said softly, but I found that it was I who was taking another step back.

  “Or?” asked Mr. Pudd softly. “You won’t kill us, Mr. Parker.” But he raised the fingers of his left hand in a halting gesture, and the woman stopped.

  If Mr. Pudd’s eyes were watchful, his essential malevolence clouded with a thin fog of good humor, his partner’s eyes were like those of a doll, glassy and expressionless. They remained fixed on me and I realized that, despite the gun in my hand, I was the one in danger of harm.

  “Take your hand out of your coat, slowly,” I told her, my aim now shifting from the man to the woman, then back again as I tried to keep them both under the gun. “And it better be empty when it appears.”

  She didn’t move until Mr. Pudd nodded once. “Do as he says,” he said. She responded immediately, taking her empty hand from her coat quickly but without any fear.

  “Now tell me, Mr. Pudd,” I said, “just exactly who are you?”

  “I represent the Fellowship,” he said. “I am asking you, on its behalf, to cease your involvement in this matter.”

  “And if I don’t?”

  “Then we may have to take further action. We could involve you in some very expensive and time-consuming litigation, Mr. Parker. We have excellent lawyers. Of course, that is only one of the options open to us. There are others.” This time the warning was explicit.

  “I see no reason for conflict,” I said, mimicking his own tone and mannerisms. “I simply want to find out what happened to Grace Peltier, and I believe Mr. Paragon could help me toward that end.”

  “Mr. Paragon is occupied with the work of the Lord.”

  “Things to do, people to fleece?”

  “You are an irreverent man, Mr. Parker. Mr. Paragon is a servant of God.”

  “It’s hard to get good staff these days.”

  Mr. Pudd made a strange hissing noise, an audible release of the pent-up aggression I sensed within him.

  “If he talks to me and answers my questions, then I’ll leave him alone,” I said. “Live and let live, that’s my motto.”

  I grinned, but he didn’t return the favor.

  “With respect
, Mr. Parker, I don’t believe that is your motto.” His mouth opened a little wider, and he almost spit. “I don’t believe that is your motto at all.”

  I cocked the pistol. “Get off my property, Mr. Pudd, and take your chatterbox friend with you.”

  That was a mistake. Beside him, the woman shifted to her left suddenly and made as if to spring at me, her left hand tensed like the talons of a hawk while her right hand made a move for her coat. I lowered the gun and fired a shot into the ground between Mr. Pudd’s feet, sending a spray of dirt into the air and causing birds to scatter from the surrounding trees. The woman stopped as his hand shot out and gripped her arm.

  “Take off your scarf, my dear,” he said, his eyes never leaving mine. The woman paused, then unknotted her black scarf and held it limply in her left hand. Her exposed neck was crisscrossed with scars, pale pink welts that had left her so badly mutilated that to allow them to remain uncovered would be to invite stares from every passerby.

  “Open wide, dear,” said Mr. Pudd.

  The woman’s mouth opened, revealing small yellow teeth, pink gums, and a tattered red mass at the back of her throat that was all that remained of her tongue.

  “Now sing. Let Mr. Parker hear you sing.”

  She opened her mouth and her lips moved, but no sound came. Yet she continued to sing a song heard only in her own head, her eyes half-closed in ecstasy, her body swaying slightly in time to the unheard music, until Mr. Pudd raised his hand and she closed her mouth instantly.

 

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