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The killing kind, p.15
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       The Killing Kind, p.15

           John Connolly
 

  But he didn’t smile when he said it, and I didn’t smile either.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  Rachel and I walked back to her apartment after dinner, holding hands but not speaking, content simply to be close to each other. We talked no further of Grace Peltier or the case. When we were inside her bedroom I slipped off my shoes and lay on her bed, watching her move through the soft yellow glow of her nightlight. Then she stood before me and removed a small wrapped package from the larger Neiman Marcus bag.

  “Is that for me?” I asked.

  “Kind of,” she replied.

  She tore open the package to reveal a tiny white lace bra and panties, an even more delicate suspender belt, and a pair of sheer silk stockings.

  “I don’t think they’ll fit me,” I said. “In fact, I’m not even sure that they’ll fit you.”

  Rachel pouted, unzipped her skirt, and let it fall to the ground, then slowly began to unbutton her shirt. “Don’t you even want me to try?” she whispered.

  Call me weak, but stronger men than I would have buckled under that kind of pressure.

  “Okay,” I said hoarsely as the blood left my head and headed south for the winter.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  Later that night I lay beside her in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the city beyond the window. I thought she was asleep, but after a time she brushed her head against my chest and I felt her eyes upon me.

  “Penny for them,” she said.

  “I’m holding out for more.”

  “Penny and a kiss.” She placed her lips softly against mine. “It’s Grace Peltier, isn’t it?”

  “Her, the Fellowship, Pudd,” I replied. “It’s everything.”

  I turned to her and found the whites of her eyes.

  “I think I’m afraid, Rachel.”

  “Afraid of what?”

  “Afraid of what I might do, of what I might have to do.”

  Her hand reached out to me, a white ghost moving through the void of the night. It traced the sockets of my eyes, the bones at my cheeks, following the lineaments of the skull beneath the skin.

  “Afraid of what I’ve done in the past,” I concluded.

  “You are a good man, Charlie Parker,” she whispered. “I wouldn’t be with you if I didn’t believe that.”

  “I’ve done bad things. I don’t want to do them any longer.”

  “You did what you had to do.”

  I gripped her hand tightly and felt her palm rest itself against my temple, the fingers lightly brushing my hair.

  “I did more than that,” I answered.

  It seemed that I was floating in a black place, with endless night above and below me, and only her hand was stopping me from falling. She understood, for her body moved closer against me and her legs wrapped around mine as if to tell me that if I was to fall, then we would fall together. Her chin burrowed into my neck and she was quiet for a time. In the silence, I could feel the weight of her thoughts.

  “You don’t know that the Fellowship was responsible for her death, or for anyone else’s,” she said at last.

  “No, I don’t,” I admitted. “But I sense that Mr. Pudd is a violent man, and maybe something worse. I could feel it when he was close, when he touched me.”

  “And violence begets violence,” whispered Rachel.

  I nodded. “I haven’t fired a gun in almost a year, Rachel, not even on a range. I hadn’t even held one in my hand until yesterday. But I have a sense that, if I involve myself further in this, I may be forced to use it.”

  “Then walk away. Give Jack Mercier his money back and let someone else deal with it.” But even as she said it, I knew that she didn’t mean it; that in a way, I was testing myself through her and she understood that.

  “You know I can’t do that. Marcy Becker could be in trouble, and I think someone murdered Grace Peltier and tried to cover it up. I can’t let that slide.”

  She moved in even closer to me, and her hand moved across the cheek and my lips. “I know you’ll do what’s right, and I think you’ll try to avoid violence if you can.”

  “And if I can’t?”

  But she didn’t respond. After all, there was only one answer.

  Outside, the traffic hummed and people slept and a sliver of moon hung in the sky like a knife slash in the heavens. And while I lay awake in the bed of the woman I loved, old Curtis Peltier sat in his kitchen, drinking hot milk in an effort to help himself sleep. He wore blue pajamas and bedroom slippers, with his tattered red robe hanging open above them. He sipped his milk, then left the glass on the table and rose to return to his bed.

  I can only guess at what happened next, but in my head I can hear the back door opening, can see the shadows lengthen and move toward him. A gloved hand clasps itself over the old man’s mouth while the other twists his arm up behind his back with such force that the shoulder immediately dislocates and the old man briefly loses consciousness. A second pair of hands grab his feet and they carry him up the stairs to the bathroom. There comes the sound of water gurgling and bubbling into the bath as, slowly, it fills. Curtis Peltier regains consciousness to find himself kneeling on the floor, his face against the tub. He watches the water rise and knows he is about to die.

  “Where is it, Mr. Peltier?” says a detached male voice beside his ear. He cannot see the face, nor can he see the second person who stands farther back, although their shadows shift on the tiles before him.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replies, scared now.

  “Yes, you do, Mr. Peltier. I know you do.”

  “Please,” he says, just before his head is plunged into the water. He has no time to take a breath and the water enters his mouth and nostrils instantly. He struggles, but his shoulder is convulsed with pain and he can only beat futilely at the water with his left hand. They pull his head up and he gasps and splutters, coughing bathwater onto the floor.

  “I’ll ask you one more time, Mr. Peltier. Where is it?”

  And the old man finds that he is crying now, crying with fear and pain and regret for his lost daughter, for she cannot protect him just as he could not protect her. He feels a force at his shoulder, fingers digging into the injured joint, and he loses consciousness again. When he awakens, he is in the bath, naked, and a redheaded man is hovering over him. There is a sharp pain in his arms, gradually growing dimmer and dimmer. He feels sleepy and struggles to keep his eyes open.

  He looks down. There are long slashes from his wrists to his elbows and the bathwater has turned to blood. The shadows watch over him as slowly, slowly the light dies, as his life seeps away and he feels his daughter embrace him at last, carrying him away with her into the darkness.

  10

  IN EVERY CASE, according to Plato, the principle is to know what the investigation is about.

  Jack Mercier had hired me to find out the truth about Grace Peltier’s death. While out at his house, I had seen Yossi Epstein, who appeared to be involved in moves against the Fellowship that were sponsored by Mercier. Yossi Epstein was now dead, and his offices had been burned to the ground. Grace Peltier had been studying the history of the Aroostook Baptists, who had since emerged from beneath a cloak of mud by the shores of St. Froid Lake. She had, for some reason, found it necessary to try to contact Carter Paragon in the course of her research, once again raising the specter of the Fellowship. Lutz, the detective who was investigating the Peltier case, was close enough to the Fellowship to haul his ass out to Waterville and warn me against irritating Paragon. If I were to connect these occurrences together and add in the figure of Mr. Pudd, the investigation now appeared to be about the Fellowship.

  Rachel left early on Saturday morning to attend the continuation of her college meeting. She brought with her a small plastic bag containing Mr. Pudd’s business card, which someone had promised to examine before lunch. I showered, made a pot of coffee, and then, wearing only a towel, began to work the phone. I called Walter Cole, my former partner in Homic
ide while I was with the NYPD, and he made some calls. From him I got the name of one of the detectives involved with the Major Case Squad investigating Epstein’s death and the arson attack on his office. The detective’s name was Lubitsch.

  “Like the movie director,” he explained when he at last came to the phone. “Ernst, you know?”

  “Any relation?”

  “No, but I directed traffic a couple of times.”

  “I don’t think it counts.”

  “You used to be a bull?”

  “That’s right.”

  “How does the PI world pay?”

  “Depends how fussy you are. There’s plenty of work out there if you’re prepared to follow errant husbands and wives. Most of it doesn’t pay too well, so you have to do a lot of it to make ends meet. Why, don’t you like being a cop?”

  “Sure, I like it okay, but it pays shit. I’d make more money emptying garbage cans.”

  “Different version of the same job.”

  “You said it. You asking about Epstein?”

  “Anything you can give.”

  “I ask why?”

  “Trade?”

  “Sure.”

  “I’m investigating the suicide of a girl who may or may not have had some contact with Epstein in the past.”

  “Name?”

  “Grace Peltier. CID III up in Machias, Maine, have it.”

  “When did she die?”

  “About two weeks ago.”

  “What links her to Epstein?”

  I didn’t see any harm in turning up the heat under the Fellowship, if I could. Anyway, Lutz’s interview with Paragon was contained in the case records.

  “The Fellowship. It was one of the organizations Epstein was making moves against. Grace Peltier may have met with its figurehead, Carter Paragon, shortly before she died.”

  “That it?”

  “There may be more. I just got started on it. Listen, if I can help at all, I will.”

  There was a pause for at least thirty seconds. I thought the phone had gone dead.

  “I’ll trust you, but just once.”

  “Once is all I need.”

  “Officially, it’s homicide. We’ve ruled out robbery as a motive, and a possible connection to the firebombing of the Jewish League for Tolerance is currently under investigation.”

  “Neat. What are you leaving out?”

  Lubitsch lowered his voice. “Postmortem found a puncture wound in Epstein’s armpit. They’re still trying to get confirmation of what was injected into him, but the latest guess is some kind of venom.” There came the sound of papers shuffling. “I’m reading here, okay, but it’s neurotoxic, which means that it blocks transmission of nerve impulses to the muscles, overstimulating the transmitters”—he stumbled on the next words—“acetylcholine and noradrenaline, causing paralysis of both the”—more stumbles—“sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, resulting in sudden and severe stress on the body.”

  Lubitsch took a deep breath.

  “In layman’s terms, the venom caused acceleration of heartbeat, increase in blood pressure, breathing difficulties, and muscle paralysis. Epstein suffered a massive heart attack within two minutes. He was dead within three. Symptoms—and this is strictly on the QT, you understand?—are systemic, usually associated with spiders. Basically, unless someone comes up with a better theory, the perp took Yossi Epstein down, squatted on his chest, then injected him with a huge dose of spider venom. They’re guessing black widow, but the tests aren’t complete. Plus, the perp took a patch of skin from his lower back, a couple of inches of it. Now is that weird shit, or is that weird shit?”

  I put down my pen and looked at the garbled notes I had written on Rachel’s telephone message pad. “Anyone else interested in this?” I asked.

  “What is that sound?” replied Lubitsch. “Why, it’s the sound of somebody stretching the bounds of professional courtesy.”

  “Sorry,” I said, “but I take it that’s a yes.”

  Lubitsch sighed. “Minneapolis PD. Possible connection to the death of a doctor named Alison Beck one week ago. She was found with black widow spiders sealed up inside her mouth.”

  “My God.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  Lubitsch seemed to enjoy my response, because he continued: “ME reckons the spiders were subdued with carbon dioxide, then inserted into her mouth as they were starting to revive. Only one widow survived: the rest bit each other, and bit her. The increase in her blood pressure triggered a stroke, and that killed her.”

  “They have any leads?”

  “She performed abortions, so they’re rounding up the local crazies while trying to keep most of the details from the press. Seems like they had a bitch of a job getting her out of the car.”

  “Why?”

  “Whoever killed her filled it with recluses.”

  Pudd.

  I thanked him, promised him a return call, and hung up. I logged on to the Internet and in less than two minutes a picture of Alison Beck was on the screen in front of me. She looked younger than she had in the photograph in Jack Mercier’s study; younger and happier. The reporters had done a pretty good job of nailing deep background sources, even to the extent of speculating that Alison Beck’s death might have been caused by a spider bite. It’s hard to keep details like that quiet.

  I turned off the computer and called Rachel, since the meeting was due to break for coffee at eleven. “Anyone have time to look at that card yet?” I asked.

  “Well, a big affectionate good morning to you too,” she replied. “Truly, the love is gone.”

  “It’s not gone, it’s just distracted. Well?”

  “They’re still looking at it. Now go away before I forget why I’m with you.”

  She hung up, which left me with a choice: either do nothing, or try my luck with the Minneapolis PD. Unfortunately, I had no contacts over there and I didn’t think that my natural charm would get me very far. I tried calling Mercier again but got the brush-off from the maid. With nothing else to do until later that evening, when Rachel and I were due to attend Cleopatra at the Wang, I dressed, took a Paul Johnston novel from Rachel’s shelf, and headed down the stairs to kill some time along Newbury Street. There was a comic book store on Newbury, I recalled. I thought it might be worth a visit.

  Al Z, it emerged, had already made the arrangements for our meeting. As soon as I stepped into the street, a car door opened and a huge shape emerged from a green Buick Regal parked across the street.

  “Nice wheels, Tommy,” I remarked. “Planning to take the boys to Disney World?”

  Tommy Caci grinned. He was wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt and skintight black jeans. His trapezius muscles were so huge he looked like he’d swallowed a coat hanger, and his massive shoulders tapered to a tiny waist. All things considered, Tommy Caci resembled a walking martini glass, but without the fragility.

  “Welcome to Boston,” he said. “Al Z would appreciate a courtesy call. Get in the car. Please.”

  “You mind if I make my own way?” I asked. Nothing would persuade me to get in the back of that Buick, no matter how much Tommy smiled. I’d prefer to walk blindfolded down the fast lane of the interstate. I didn’t like to think of some of the trips people had taken in that car.

  Tommy’s smile didn’t falter. “Easier this way. Al don’t like to be kept waiting.”

  “I’m sure. Still, how about I take some air and follow you on over?”

  Tommy shrugged. It wasn’t worth getting rough over. “You want to take some air, that’s fine with us,” he said resignedly.

  So I walked over to Al Z’s office on Newbury Street. Admittedly, the Buick shadowed me every step of the way, never going above a couple of miles an hour, but it made me feel kind of wanted. When I arrived at the comic book store, Tommy waved at me and the Buick shot away, scattering tourists from its path. I rang the buzzer, gave my name, then pushed the door and walked up the bare stairs to Al Z’s office.

&nb
sp; It hadn’t changed a whole lot since the last time I was there. It was still bare boards and peeling paint. There were still two gunmen inside the door, and there was still nowhere to sit apart from a worn red sofa against one wall and the chair behind Al Z’s desk, a chair currently occupied by Al Z himself.

  He wore a black suit, a black shirt, and a black tie, and his gray hair was slicked back from his skull, making his thin face look even more cadaverous than it usually did. A pair of hearing aids were visible in his small, pointed ears. Al Z’s hearing had been failing in recent years. It must have been all those guns going off around him.

  “I see you broke out your summer wardrobe,” I said.

  He looked down at his clothes as if seeing them for the first time. “I was at a funeral,” he said.

  “You arrange it?”

  “Nah, just paying my last respects to a friend. All my friends are dying. Soon I’ll be the only one left.” I noticed that Al Z seemed pretty certain he was going to outlive his friends. Knowing Al Z, I figured he was probably right.

  He gestured at the sofa. “Take a seat. I don’t get so many visitors.”

  “Can’t understand why, this place looking so welcoming and all.”

  “I got Spartan tastes.” He smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Well, this is just my lucky day. First a funeral, then it turns out I’m a stop on the Charlie Parker Goodwill Tour. Next thing you know, my dick will drop off and my plants will die.”

  “I’ll be sorry to see your plants go.”

  Al Z stretched his long body in his chair. It was like watching a snake uncoil. “And how is the elusive Louis? We don’t hear much about him now. Seems like the only person he kills for these days is you.”

  “The only person he ever killed for was himself,” I replied.

  “Whatever. The only reason you can still take the subway when you visit New York is because your associate will whack anyone who makes a move on you. I think he’d even whack me if he had to, and I consider myself to be a pretty nice guy, all things considered. Well, most things considered.” He shook his head in bemusement. “Now what can I do for you, apart from letting you walk out of here alive?”

 
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