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The killing kind, p.12
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       The Killing Kind, p.12

           John Connolly
 

  “She used to have such a beautiful voice, Mr. Parker, so fine and pure. It was throat cancer that took it from her: throat cancer and the will of God. Perhaps it was a strange blessing, a visitation from the Lord sent to test her faith and confirm her on the one true path to salvation. In the end, I think it just made her love the Lord even more.”

  I didn’t share his faith in the woman. The rage inside her was palpable, a fury at the pain she had endured, the loss she had suffered. That wrath had consumed any love that once existed within her, and now she was forced to look beyond herself to feed it. The pain would never ease, but the burden could be made more bearable by inflicting a taste of it on others.

  “But,” Mr. Pudd concluded, “I like to tell her it was because her voice made the angels jealous.”

  I had to take his word for it. I didn’t see anything else about her that might have aroused the envy of angels.

  “Well,” I said, “at least she still has her looks.”

  Mr. Pudd didn’t respond but now real hatred appeared in his eyes. It was a passing thing, gone as quickly as a mayfly to be replaced with his habitual look of false good humor. But what had flickered briefly in his eyes burst into glorious, savage flame in those of the woman: in her eyes I saw churches burn, with the congregations still inside. Mr. Pudd seemed to sense the waves of contained violence rolling from her, because he turned and touched her cheek gently with the hairy back of one finger.

  “My Nakir,” he whispered. “Hush.”

  Her eyes fluttered briefly closed at the caress, and I wondered if they were lovers.

  “Go back to the car, my dear. Our business here is concluded, for the present.” The woman looked at me once more, then walked away. Mr. Pudd seemed about to follow her, then stopped and turned back.

  “You are unwise to pursue this. I advise you for the last time to cease your involvement in this affair.”

  “Sue me,” I said.

  But Mr. Pudd only shook his head. “No, it’s gone far beyond that, I’m afraid. I fear we shall be seeing each other again, under less favorable circumstances for you.”

  He raised his hands.

  “I am going to reach into my pocket, Mr. Parker, for my business card.” Without waiting for a reply, he took a small silver case from the right-hand pocket of his jacket. He flipped open the case and removed a white business card, holding it gently by one corner. Once again, he extended his hand, but this time it didn’t falter. He waited patiently until I was forced to reach for it. As I took it, he shifted his hand slightly and the tips of his fingers brushed against mine. Involuntarily, I shied away from the contact and Mr. Pudd nodded slightly, as if I had somehow confirmed a suspicion he had.

  The card said only ELIAS PUDD in black Roman letters. There was no telephone number, no business address, no occupation. The back of the card was completely blank.

  “Your card doesn’t say a lot about you, Mr. Pudd,” I remarked.

  “On the contrary, it says everything about me, Mr. Parker. I fear that you are simply not reading it correctly.”

  “All it tells me is that you’re either cheap or a minimalist,” I responded. “You’re also irritating, but it doesn’t say that on your card either.”

  For the first time, Mr. Pudd truly smiled, his yellow teeth showing and his eyes lighting up. “Oh, but it does, in its way,” he said, and chuckled once. I kept the gun trained on him until he had climbed into the car and the strange pair had disappeared in a cloud of dust and fumes that seemed to taint the very sunlight that shone through it.

  My fingers began to blister almost as soon as they had driven away. At first there was just a feeling of mild irritation but it quickly became real pain as small raised bumps appeared on my fingertips and the palm of my hand. I applied some hydrocortisone but the irritation persisted for most of the day, an intense, uncomfortable itching where Mr. Pudd’s card, and his fingers, had touched my skin. Using tweezers, I placed the card in a plastic envelope, sealed it, and placed it on my hall table. I would ask Rachel to have someone take a look at it while I was in Boston.

  7

  I LEFT MY GUN BENEATH THE SPARE TIRE in the trunk of the Mustang before walking to the granite masonry bulk of the Edward T. Gignoux Courthouse at Newbury and Market. I passed through the metal detector, then climbed the marble stairs to courtroom 1, taking a seat in one of the chairs at the back of the court.

  The last of the five rows of benches was filled with what, in less enlightened times, might have been referred to as the cast of a freak show. There were five or six people of extremely diminished stature, two or three obese women, and a quartet of very elderly females dressed like hookers. Beside them was a huge, muscular man with a bald head who must have been six-five and weighed in at three hundred pounds. All of them seemed to be paying a great deal of attention to what was going on at the front of the courtroom.

  The court was already in session and a man I took to be Arthur Franklin was arguing some point of law with the judge. His client, it appeared, was wanted in California for a range of offenses, including copyright theft, animal cruelty, and tax evasion, and was about as likely to avoid a jail term as mayflies were to see Christmas. He was released on $50,000 bail and was scheduled to appear later that month before the same judge, when a final decision would be made on his extradition. Then everybody stood and the judge departed through a door behind his brown leather chair.

  I walked up the center aisle, the muscular man close behind me, and introduced myself to Franklin. He was in his early forties, dressed in a blue suit, under which he was sweating slightly. His hair was startlingly black and the eyes beneath his bushy brows had the panic-stricken look of a deer faced with the lights of an approaching truck.

  Meanwhile Harvey Ragle, who was seated beside Franklin, wasn’t what I had expected. He was about forty and wore a neatly pressed tan suit, a clean, white, open-necked shirt, and oxblood loafers. His hair was brown and curly, cut close to his skull, and the only jewelry he wore was a gold Raymond Weil watch with a brown leather strap. He was freshly shaven and had splashed on Armani aftershave like it was being given away free. He rose from his seat and extended a well-manicured hand.

  “Harvey Ragle,” he said. “CEO, Crushem Productions.” He smiled warmly, revealing startlingly white teeth.

  “A pleasure, I’m sure,” I replied. “I’m sorry, I can’t shake hands. I seem to have picked up something unpleasant.”

  I lifted my blistered fingers and Ragle blanched. For a man who made his living by squashing small creatures, he was a surprisingly sensitive soul. I followed them both out of the courtroom, pausing briefly while the old ladies, the obese women, and the little people took turns hugging him and wishing him well, before we crossed into attorney conference room 223 beside courtroom 2. The huge man, whose name was Mikey, waited outside, his hands crossed before him.

  “Protection,” explained Franklin as he closed the door behind us. We sat down at the conference table and it was Ragle who spoke first.

  “You’ve seen my work, Mr. Parker?” he said.

  “The crush video, Mr. Ragle? Yes, I’ve seen it.”

  Ragle recoiled a little, like I’d just breathed garlic on him.

  “I don’t like that term. I make erotic films, of every kind, and I am a father to my actors. Those people in court today are stars, Mr. Parker, stars.”

  “The midgets?” I asked.

  Ragle smiled wistfully. “They’re little people, but they have a lot of love to give.”

  “And the old ladies?”

  “Very energetic. Their appetites have increased rather than diminished with age.”

  Good grief.

  “And now you make films like the one your attorney sent me?”

  “Yes.”

  “In which people step on bugs.”

  “Yes.”

  “And mice.”

  “Yes.”

  “Do you enjoy your work, Mr. Ragle?”

  “Very much,” he said.
“I take it that you disapprove.”

  “Call me a prude, but it seems kind of sick, besides being cruel and illegal.”

  Ragle leaned forward and tapped me on the knee with his index finger. I resisted breaking it, but only just.

  “But people kill insects and rodents every day, Mr. Parker,” he began. “Some of them may even derive a great deal of pleasure from doing so. Unfortunately, as soon as they admit to that pleasure and attempt to replicate it in some form, our absurdly censorious law enforcement agencies step in and penalize them. Don’t forget, Mr. Parker, we put Reich in jail to die for selling his sex boxes from Rangeley, in this very state. We have a record of penalizing those who seek sexual gratification by unorthodox means.”

  He sat back and smiled his bright smile.

  I smiled back at him. “I believe it’s not only the state of California that has strong feelings about the legitimacy of what you do.”

  Ragle’s veneer began to crumble and he seemed to grow pale beneath his tan.

  “Er, yes,” he said. He coughed, then reached for a glass of water that was resting on the table before him. “One gentleman in particular seems to have serious objections to some of my more, um, specialized productions.”

  “Who might that be?”

  “He calls himself Mr. Pudd,” interjected Franklin.

  I tried to keep my expression neutral.

  “He didn’t like the spider movies,” he added.

  I could guess why.

  Ragle’s façade finally shattered completely, as if the mention of Pudd’s name had finally brought home the reality of the threat he was facing. “He wants to kill me,” he whined. “I don’t want to die for my art.”

  So Al Z knew something about the Fellowship, and Pudd, and had seen fit to point me in Ragle’s direction. It seemed that I had another good reason for going to Boston besides Rachel and the elusive Ali Wynn.

  “How did he find out about you?”

  Ragle shook his head angrily. “I have a new supplier, a man who provides me with rodents and insects and, when necessary, arachnids. It’s my belief that he told this individual, this Mr. Pudd, about me.”

  “Why would he do that?”

  “To divert attention away from himself. I think Mr. Pudd would be just as angry with whoever sold me the creatures as he is with me.”

  “So your supplier gave Pudd your name, then claimed not to know what you were planning to do with the bugs?”

  “That is correct, yes.”

  “What’s the supplier’s name?”

  “Bargus. Lester Bargus. He owns a store in Gorham, specializing in exotic insects and reptiles.”

  I stopped taking notes.

  “You know the name, Mr. Parker?” asked Franklin.

  I nodded. Lester Bargus was what people liked to call “two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag.” He was the kind of guy who thought it was patriotic to be stupid and took his mother to Denny’s to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. I recalled him from my time in Scarborough High, when I used to stand at the fence that marked the boundary of the football field, the big Redskins logo dominating the board, and get ready to face a beating. Those early months were the hardest. I was only fourteen and my father had been dead for two months. The rumors had followed us north: that my father had been a policeman in New York; that he had killed two people, a boy and a girl—shot them down dead, and they weren’t even armed; that he had subsequently put his gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. They were made worse by the fact that they were true; there was no way of avoiding what my father had done, just as there was no way of explaining it. He had killed them, that was all. I don’t know what he saw when he pulled the trigger on them. They were taunting him, trying to make him lose his temper with them, but they couldn’t have known what they would cause him to do. Afterward my mother and I had run north, back to Scarborough, back to her father, who had once been a policeman himself, and the rumors had snapped at our heels like black dogs.

  It took me a while to learn how to defend myself, but I did. My grandfather showed me how to block a punch and how to throw one back in a single controlled movement that would draw blood every time. But when I think back on those first months, I think of that fence, and a circle of young men closing in on me, and Lester Bargus with his freckles and his brown, square-cut hair, sucking spit back into his mouth after he had begun to drool with the joy of striking out at another human being from the security of the pack. Had he been a coyote, Lester Bargus would have been the runt that hangs at the margins of the group, lying down on its back when the stronger ones turned on it yet always ready to fall on the weak and the wounded when the frenzy struck. He tortured and bullied and came close to rape in his senior year. He didn’t even bother to take his SATs; a new scale would have been needed to assess the depths of Bargus’s ignorance.

  I had heard that Bargus now ran a bug store in Gorham but it was believed to be merely a front for his other interest, which was the illegal sale of weapons. If you needed a clean gun quickly, then Lester Bargus was your man, particularly if your political and social views were so right wing they made the Klan look like the ACLU.

  “Are there a lot of stores that supply bugs, Mr. Ragle?”

  “Not in this state, no, but Bargus is also regarded as a considerable authority nationally. Collectors consult with him on a regular basis.” Ragle shuddered. “Although not, I should add, in person. Mr. Bargus is a particularly unpleasant individual.”

  “And you’re telling me all this because ...?”

  Franklin intervened. “Because my client is certain that Mr. Pudd will kill him if someone doesn’t stop him first. The gentleman in Boston, who has acted as a conduit for some of my client’s more mainstream products, believes that a case with which you are currently involved may impinge upon my client’s interests. He suggested that any assistance we might be able to provide could only help our cause.”

  “And all you have is Lester Bargus?”

  Franklin shrugged unhappily.

  “Has Pudd tried to contact you?”

  “In a way. My client had been sequestered in a safe house in Standish. The house burned down; somebody threw an incendiary device through the bedroom window. Fortunately, Mr. Ragle was able to escape without injury. It was after that incident that we took Mikey on as security.”

  I closed my notebook and stood up to leave. “I can’t promise anything,” I said.

  Ragle leaned toward me and gripped my arm. “If you find this man, Mr. Parker, squash him,” he hissed. “Squash him like a bug.”

  I gently removed my arm from his grasp. “I don’t think stiletto heels come that big, Mr. Ragle, but I’ll bear it in mind.”

  I drove over to Gorham that afternoon. It was only a couple of miles but it was still a wasted trip, as I knew it would be. Bargus was aging badly, his hair and teeth almost gone and his fingers stained yellow with nicotine. He wore a No New World Order T-shirt, depicting a blue United Nations helmet caught in the crosshairs of a sniper’s sight. In his dimly lit store, spiders crouched in dirt-filled cases, snakes curled around branches, and the hard exoskeletons of cockroaches clicked as they crawled against one another. On the counter beside him a four-inch-long mantid squatted in a glass case, its spiked front legs raised before it. Bargus fed it a cricket, which skipped across the dirt at the bottom of the case as it tried vainly to evade destruction. The mantid turned its head to watch it, seemingly amused by its presumption, then set off in pursuit.

  It took Bargus a few moments to recognize me as I approached the counter.

  “Well, well,” he said. “Look what just rose to the lip of the bowl.”

  “You’re looking well, Lester,” I answered. “How do you stay so young and pretty?”

  He scowled at me and picked at something jammed between two of his remaining teeth. “You a fag, Parker? I always thought you was queer.”

  “Now, Lester, don’t think I’m not flattered, but you’re not really my type.”

&
nbsp; “Huh.” He didn’t sound convinced. “You here to buy something?”

  “I’m looking for some information.”

  “Out the door, turn right, and keep going till you hit the asshole of hell. Tell ’em I sent you.”

  He went back to reading a book, which, judging from the illustrations, appeared to be a guide to making a mortar out of beer cans.

  “That’s no way to talk to an old high school buddy.”

  “You ain’t my buddy, and I don’t like you being in my store,” he said without looking up from his book.

  “Can I ask why?”

  “People have a habit of dying around you.”

  “You look hard enough, people have a habit of dying around everybody.”

  “Maybe, ’cept around you they die a whole lot quicker and a whole lot more regular.”

  “Then the sooner I leave, the safer you’ll be.”

  “I ain’t holdin’ you.”

  I tapped lightly at the glass of the mantid case, directly in the insect’s line of vision, and the triangular head drew back as it flinched. A mantid is the most humanlike of insects; it has its eyes arranged so that it can see forward, allowing it depth perception. It can see a certain amount of color, and it can turn its head to look over its “shoulder.” Also, like humans, it will eat just about anything it can subdue, from a hornet to a mouse. As I moved my finger, the mantid’s head carefully followed the motion while its jaws chomped at the cricket. The top half of the cricket’s body was already gone.

  “Quit botherin’ it,” said Bargus.

  “That’s quite a predator.”

  “That bitch would eat you, she thought you’d stay still long enough.” He grinned, revealing his rotting teeth.

  “I hear they can take a black widow.”

  The beer can mortar book now lay forgotten before him. “I seen her do it.” Bargus nodded.

  “Maybe she’s not so bad after all.”

  “You don’t like spiders, you just walked into the wrong store.”

  I shrugged. “I don’t like them as much as some. I don’t like them as much as Mr. Pudd.”

 
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