Every dead thing, p.12
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       Every Dead Thing, p.12

           John Connolly
 

  Ross did most of the talking, while Hernandez ostentatiously examined the contents of my bookshelf, looking at covers and reading the dust jackets. He hadn’t asked if he could and I didn’t like it.

  “There are some picture ones on the lower shelf,” I said. “No Crayolas, though. I hope you brought your own.”

  Hernandez scowled at me. He was in his late twenties and probably still believed everything he had been taught about the agency in Quantico. He reminded me of the tour guides in the Hoover Building, the ones who herd the Minnesota housewives around while dreaming of gunning down drug dealers and international terrorists. Hernandez probably still refused to believe that Hoover had worn a dress.

  Ross was a different matter. He had been involved with the feds’ Truck Hijack Squad in New York in the seventies and his name had been linked to a number of high-profile RICO cases since then. I believed he was probably a good agent, but a lousy human being. I had already decided what I was going to tell him: nothing.

  “Why were you at the Ferrera house this evening?” he began, after declining an offer of coffee like a monkey refusing a nut.

  “I’ve got a paper route.” Ross didn’t even grin. Hernandez’s scowl deepened. If I’d had a nervous disposition, the strain might have proved too much for me.

  “Don’t be an asshole,” said Ross. “I could arrest you on suspicion of involvement with organized crime, hold you for a while, let you go, but what good would that do either of us? I’ll ask you again: why were you at the Ferrera house this evening?”

  “I’m conducting an investigation. Ferrera might have been connected to it.”

  “What are you investigating?”

  “That’s confidential.”

  “Who hired you?”

  “Confidential.” I was tempted to put on a singsong voice, but I didn’t think Ross was in the right frame of mind. Maybe he was right, maybe I was an asshole; but I was no nearer to finding Catherine Demeter than I had been twenty-four hours ago, and her boyfriend’s death had opened up a range of possibilities, none of which was particularly appealing. If Ross was out to nail Sonny Ferrera or his father, then that was his problem. I had enough of my own.

  “What did you tell Ferrera about Barton’s death?”

  “Nothing he didn’t know already, seeing as how Hansen was at the scene before you were,” I replied. Hansen was a reporter with the Post, a good one. There were flies that envied Hansen’s ability to sniff out a corpse, but if someone had time to tip Hansen off it was pretty certain that someone had informed Ferrera even earlier. Walter was right: parts of the Police Department leaked like a poor man’s shoes.

  “Look,” I said, “I don’t know any more than you do. I don’t think Sonny was involved, or the old man. As for anyone else…”

  Ross’s eyes flicked upward in frustration. After a pause, he asked if I’d met Bobby Sciorra. I told him I’d had that pleasure. Ross stood and picked at some microscopic speck on his tie. It looked like the sort you picked up in Filene’s Basement after the good stuff has gone.

  “Sciorra’s been mouthing off about teaching you a lesson, I hear. He thinks you’re an interfering prick. He’s probably right.”

  “I hope you’ll do everything in your power to protect me.”

  Ross smiled, a minute hitching of the lips that revealed small, pointed canines. He looked like a rat reacting to a stick poked in its face.

  “Rest assured, we’ll do everything in our power to find the culprit when something happens to you.” Hernandez smiled too as they headed for the door. Like father, like son.

  I smiled back. “You can let yourselves out. And Hernandez…” He stopped and turned.

  “I’m gonna count those books.”

  Ross was right to be concentrating his energies on Sonny. He may have been strictly minor league in many ways—a few porn parlors near Port Authority, a social club on Mott with a handwritten notice taped above the phone reminding members that it was bugged, assorted petty drug deals, shylocking, and running whores hardly made him Public Enemy Number One—but Sonny was also the weak link in the Ferrera chain. If he could be broken, then it might lead to Sciorra and to the old man himself.

  I watched the two FBI men from my window as they climbed into their car. Ross paused at the passenger side and stared up at the window for a time. It didn’t crack under the pressure. Neither did I, but I had a feeling that Agent Ross wasn’t really trying, not yet.

  14

  I T WAS AFTER TEN the next morning when I arrived at the Barton house. An unidentified flunky answered the door and showed me into the same office in which I had met Isobel Barton the day before, with the same desk and the same Ms. Christie wearing what looked like the same gray suit and the same unwelcoming look on her face.

  She didn’t offer me a seat so I stood with my hands in my pockets to stop my fingers getting numb in the chilly atmosphere. She busied herself with some papers on the desk, not sparing me a second look. I stood by the fireplace and admired a blue china dog that stood at the far end of the mantelpiece. It was part of what had probably once been a pair, since there was an empty space on the opposite side. He looked lonely without a friend.

  “I thought these things usually came in pairs?”

  Ms. Christie glanced up, her face crumpled in annoyance like an image on old newspaper.

  “The dog,” I repeated. “I thought china dogs like that came in matching pairs.” I wasn’t particularly concerned about the dog but I was tired of Ms. Christie ignoring me and I derived some petty pleasure from irritating her.

  “It was once part of a pair,” she replied after a moment. “The other was…damaged some time ago.”

  “That must have been upsetting,” I said, trying to look like I meant it while simultaneously failing to do so.

  “It was. It had sentimental value.”

  “For you, or Mrs. Barton?”

  “For both of us.” Ms. Christie realized she had been forced to acknowledge my presence despite her best efforts, so she carefully put the cap on her pen, clasped her hands together, and assumed a businesslike expression.

  “How is Mrs. Barton?” I asked. What might have been concern moved swiftly across Ms. Christie’s features and then disappeared, like a gull gliding over a cliff face.

  “She has been under sedation since last night. As you can imagine, she took the news badly.”

  “I didn’t think she and her stepson were that close.”

  Ms. Christie tossed me a look of contempt. I probably deserved it.

  “Mrs. Barton loved Stephen as if he were her own son. Don’t forget that you are merely an employee, Mr. Parker. You do not have the right to impugn the reputation of the living or the dead.” She shook her head at my insensitivity. “Why are you here? There’s a great deal to be done before…”

  She stopped and, for a moment, looked lost. I waited for her to resume. “Before Stephen’s funeral,” she finished, and I realized that there might be more to her apparent distress at the events of last night than simple concern for her employer. For a guy who had all the higher moral qualities of a hammerhead shark, Stephen Barton had certainly attracted his share of admirers.

  “I have to go to Virginia,” I said. “It may take more than the advance I was given. I wanted to let Mrs. Barton know before I left.”

  “Is this to do with the killing?”

  “I don’t know.” It was becoming a familiar refrain. “There may be a connection between Catherine Demeter’s disappearance and Mr. Barton’s death but we won’t know unless the police find something or the girl turns up.”

  “Well, I can’t authorize that kind of spending at the present time,” began Ms. Christie. “You’ll have to wait until after—”

  I interrupted her. Frankly, I was getting tired of Ms. Christie. I was used to people not liking me, but most at least had the decency to get to know me first, however briefly.

  “I’m not asking you to authorize it, and after my meeting with Mrs. Barton, I
don’t think you have anything to do with it. But as a common courtesy I thought I’d offer my sympathies and tell her how far I’ve got.”

  “And how far have you got, Mr. Parker?” she hissed. She was standing now, her knuckles white against the desk. In her eyes something vicious and poisonous raised its head and flashed its fangs.

  “I think the girl may have left the city. I think she went home, or back to what used to be home, but I don’t know why. If she’s there I’ll find her, make sure she’s okay, and contact Mrs. Barton.”

  “And if she isn’t?” I let the question hang without a reply. There was no answer, for if Catherine Demeter wasn’t in Haven, then she might as well have dropped off the face of the earth until she did something that made her traceable, like using a credit card or making a telephone call to her worried friend.

  I felt tired and frayed at the edges. The case seemed to be fragmenting, the pieces spinning away from me and glittering in the distance. There were too many elements involved to be merely coincidental, and yet I was too experienced to try to force them all together into a picture that might be untrue to reality, an imposition of order upon the chaos of murder and killing. Still, it seemed to me that Catherine Demeter was one of those pieces and that she had to be found so that her place in the order of things could be determined.

  “I’m leaving this afternoon. I’ll call if I find anything.” Ms. Christie’s eyes had lost their shine and the bitter thing that lived within her had curled back on itself to sleep for a while. I was not even sure that she heard me. I left her like that, her knuckles still resting on the desk, her eyes vacant, seemingly staring somewhere within herself, her face slick and pale as if troubled by what she saw.

  As it turned out, I was delayed by further problems with my car and it was 4 P.M. before I drove the Mustang back to my apartment to pack my bag.

  A welcome breeze blew as I walked up the steps, fumbling for my keys. It sent candy wrappers cartwheeling across the street and set soft drink cans tolling like bells. A discarded newspaper skimmed the sidewalk with a sound like the whisperings of a dead lover.

  I walked the four flights of stairs to my door, entered the apartment, and turned on a lamp. I prepared a pot of coffee and packed as it percolated. About thirty minutes later I was finishing my coffee, my overnight bag at my feet, when the cell phone rang.

  “Hello, Mr. Parker,” said a man’s voice. The voice was neutral, almost artificial, and I could hear small clicks between the words as if they had been reassembled from a completely different conversation.

  “Who is this?”

  “Oh, we’ve never met, but we had some mutual acquaintances. Your wife and daughter. You might say I was with them in their final moments.” The voice alternated between sets of words: now high, then low, first male, then female. At one point, there seemed to be three voices speaking simultaneously, then they became a single male voice once again.

  The apartment seemed to drop in temperature and then fall away from me. There was only the phone, the tiny perforations of the mouthpiece, and the silence at the other end of the line.

  “I’ve had freak calls before,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “You’re just another lonely man looking for a house to haunt.”

  “I cut their faces off. I broke your wife’s nose by slamming her against the wall by the kitchen door. Don’t doubt me. I am the one you’ve been looking for.” The last words were all spoken by a child’s voice, high-pitched and joyous.

  I felt a stabbing pain behind my eyes and my blood sounded loudly in my ears like waves crashing against a headland bleak and gray. There was no saliva in my mouth, just a dry dusty sensation. When I swallowed the feeling was that of dirt traveling down my throat. It was painful and I struggled to find my voice.

  “Mr. Parker, are you okay?” The words were calm, solicitous, almost tender, but spoken by what sounded like four different voices.

  “I’ll find you.”

  He laughed. The synthesized nature of the sound was more obvious now. It seemed to break up into tiny units, just as a TV screen does when you get too close and the picture becomes merely a series of small dots.

  “But I’ve found you,” he said. “You wanted me to find you, just as you wanted me to find them and to do what I did. You brought me into your life. For you, I flamed into being.

  “I had been waiting so long for your call. You wanted them to die. Didn’t you hate your wife in the hours before I took her? And don’t you sometimes, in the deep dark of the night, have to fight back your sense of guilt at the feeling of freedom it gave you knowing she was dead? I freed you. The least you could do is show some gratitude.”

  “You’re a sick man, but that isn’t going to save you.” I checked caller ID on the phone and froze. It was a number I recognized. It was the number of the public phone at the corner of the street. I moved toward the door and began making my way down the stairs.

  “No, not ‘man.’ In her final moments your wife knew that, your Susan, mouth to mouth’s kiss as I drew the life from her. Oh, I lusted for her in those last, bright red minutes, but then, that has always been a weakness of our kind. Our sin was not pride, but lust for humanity. And I chose her, Mr. Parker, and I loved her in my way.” The voice was now deep and male. It boomed in my ear like the voice of a god, or a devil.

  “Fuck you,” I said, the bile rising in my throat as I felt sweat bead my brow and run in rivulets down my face, a sick, fearful sweat that defied the fury in my voice. I had come down three flights of stairs. There was one flight left to go.

  “Don’t go yet.” The voice became that of a female child, like my child, my Jennifer, and in that moment I had some inkling of the nature of this Traveling Man. “We’ll talk again soon. By then, maybe my purpose will be clearer to you. Take what I give you as a gift. I hope it will ease your suffering. It should be coming to you right…about… now.”

  I heard the buzzer sound in my apartment upstairs. I dropped the phone to the floor and drew the Smith & Wesson from my holster. I took the remaining steps two at a time, racing down the stairs with adrenaline pumping through my system. My neighbor Mrs. D’Amato, startled by the noise, stood at her apartment door, the one nearest the front entrance, a housecoat held tight at her neck. I rushed past her, wrenched open the door, and came out low, my thumb already clicking down the safety.

  On the step stood a black child of no more than ten years, a cylindrical, gift-wrapped parcel in his hand and his eyes wide in fear and shock. I grabbed him by the collar and flung him inside, shouting for Mrs. D’Amato to hold him, to get both of them away from the package, and ran down the steps of the redbrick and on to the street.

  It was deserted except for the papers and the rolling cans. It was a strange desertion, as if the East Village and its inhabitants had conspired with the Traveling Man against me. At the far end of the street, beneath the streetlight, a telephone booth stood. There was no one there and the handset was hanging in its place. I ran toward it, moving away from the corner wall as I approached in case anyone was waiting at the other side. Here, the street was alive with passersby, gay couples hand in hand, tourists, lovers. In the distance I saw the lights of traffic and I heard around me the sounds of a safer, more mundane world I seemed to have left behind.

  I spun at the sound of footsteps behind me. A young woman was approaching the telephone, fumbling in her purse for change. She looked up as she saw me approach and backed off at the sight of the gun.

  “Find another,” I said. I took one last look around, clicked the safety, and stuck the gun in the waistband of my pants. I braced my foot against the pillar of the phone booth and with both hands I wrenched the connecting cable from the phone with a strength that was not natural to me. Then I returned to my apartment house, carrying the receiver before me like a fish on the end of a line.

  Inside her apartment Mrs. D’Amato was holding the kid by his arms while he struggled and fought, with tears rolling down his cheeks. I held his shoulde
rs and squatted down to his level.

  “Hey, it’s okay. Take it easy. You’re not in any trouble, I just want to ask you some questions. What’s your name?”

  The boy quieted down a little, although he still shook with sobs. He glanced around nervously at Mrs. D’Amato and then made an attempt to break for the door. He nearly made it, too, his jacket slipping from his body as he pulled out his arms, but the force of his efforts made him slip and fall and I was on him. I hauled him to a chair, sat him down, and gave Mrs. D’Amato Walter Cole’s number. I told her to tell him it was urgent and to get over here fast.

  “What’s your name, kid?”

  “Jake.”

  “Okay, Jake. Who gave you this?” I nodded toward the parcel that stood on the table beside us, wrapped in blue paper decorated with teddy bears and candy canes, and topped with a bright blue ribbon.

  Jake shook his head, the force sending tears flying off in both directions.

  “It’s all right, Jake. There’s no need to be scared. Was it a man, Jake?” Jake, Jake. Keep using his name, calm him, get him to concentrate.

  His face swiveled toward me, the eyes huge. He nodded.

  “Did you see what he looked like, Jake?”

  His chin crumpled and he started to cry in loud sobs that brought Mrs. D’Amato back to the kitchen door.

  “He said he’d hurt me,” said Jake. “He said he’d cu-cut my face off.”

  Mrs. D’Amato moved beside him and he buried his face in the folds of her housecoat, wrapping his small arms around her thick waist.

  “Did you see him, Jake? Did you see what he looked like?”

  He turned from the housecoat.

  “He had a knife, like doctors use on TV.” The boy’s mouth hung wide with terror. “He showed it to me, touched me with it here.” He lifted a finger to his left cheek.

  “Jake, did you see his face?”

  “He was all dark,” said Jake, his voice rising in hysteria. “There was nuh-nuhthin’ there.” His voice rose to a scream: “He didn’t have no face.”

 

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