Every dead thing, p.20
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       Every Dead Thing, p.20

           John Connolly
 

  I cannot countenance the death of children. The killing of a child seems to bring with it the death of hope, the death of the future. I recall how I used to listen to Jennifer breathe, how I used to watch the rise and fall of my infant daughter’s chest, how I felt a sense of gratitude, of relief, with every inhalation and exhalation. When she cried, I would lull her to sleep in my arms, waiting for the sobs to fade into the soft rhythms of rest. And when she was at last quiet, I would bend down slowly, carefully, my back aching from the strain of the position, and lay her in her crib. When she was taken from me it was like the death of a world, an infinite number of futures coming to an end.

  I felt a weight of despair upon me as the motel drew closer. Hyams had said that he had seen nothing in the Modines that would have indicated the depths of evil that existed within them. Walt Tyler, if what he had said was true, saw that evil only in Adelaide Modine. She had lived among these people, had grown up with them, perhaps even played with them, had sat with them in church, had watched them marry, have children, and then had preyed upon them, and no one had suspected her.

  I think that what I wanted was a power I could not have: the power to perceive evil, the ability to look at the faces in a crowded room and see the signs of depravity and corruption. The thought sparked a memory of a killing in New York State some years before, in which a thirteen-year-old-boy had killed a younger kid in the woods, beating him to death with rocks. It was the words of the killer’s grandfather that had stayed with me. “My God,” he said. “I should have been able to see, somehow. There should have been something to see.”

  “Are there any pictures of Adelaide Modine?” I asked eventually.

  Martin’s brow furrowed. “There may be one in the files of the original investigation. The library may have some stuff too. There’s a kind of town archive stored in its basement, y’know, yearbooks, photos from the paper. There may be something in there. Why d’you ask?”

  “Curiosity. She was responsible for so much of what happened to this town but I find it hard to picture her. Maybe I want to see what her eyes looked like.”

  Martin shot me a puzzled look. “I can get Laurie to look in the library archives. I’ll try to get Burns to look through our own files, but it could take a while. They’re all packed in boxes and the filing system is pretty obscure. Some of the files aren’t even in date order. It’s a lot of work to satisfy your idle curiosity.”

  “I’d appreciate it anyway.”

  Martin made a sound in his throat but didn’t say anything else for a while. Then, as the motel appeared on our right, he pulled over to the side of the road. “About Earl Lee,” he said.

  “Go on.”

  “The sheriff’s a good man. He held this town together after the Modine killings, from what I hear, him and Doc Hyams and a couple of others. He’s a fair man and I’ve no complaints about him.”

  “If what Tyler said is true, maybe you should have.”

  Martin nodded. “That’s as may be. If he’s right, then the sheriff’s got to live with what he’s done. He’s a troubled man, Mr. Parker, troubled by the past, by himself. I don’t envy him anything but his strength.” He spread his hands wide and shrugged slightly. “Part of me figures that you should stay here and talk to him when he comes back, but another part of me, the smart part, tells me that it would be better for all of us if you finished up your business as quickly as you can and then got out.”

  “Have you heard from him?”

  “No, I haven’t. He had some leave coming to him and maybe he’s a little overdue on returning, but I ain’t gonna hold that against him. He’s a lonely man. A man who likes the company of other men ain’t gonna find much comfort here.”

  “No,” I said, as the neon light of the Welcome Inn flickered beyond us. “I guess not.”

  The call came through almost as soon as Martin pulled away from the curb. There had been a death at the medical center: the unidentified woman who had tried to kill me the previous night.

  When we arrived two cruisers were blocking the entrance to the parking lot and I could see the two FBI men talking together at the door. Martin drove us through and as we got out of the car the two agents moved toward me in unison, their guns drawn.

  “Easy! Easy!” shouted Martin. “He was with me the whole time. Put them away, boys.”

  “We’re detaining him until Agent Ross arrives,” said one of the agents, whose name was Willox.

  “You ain’t detaining or arresting nobody, not until we find out what’s going on here.”

  “Deputy, I’m warning you, you’re out of your league here.”

  Wallace and Burns came out of the medical center at that point, alerted by the shouts. To their credit, they moved to Martin’s side, their hands hanging close by their guns.

  “Like I said, let it go,” said Martin quietly. The feds looked like they might push the issue but then they holstered their weapons and moved back.

  “Agent Ross is going to hear of this,” hissed Willox to Martin, but the deputy just walked by.

  Wallace and Burns walked with us to the room in which the woman had been kept.

  “What happened?” asked Martin.

  Wallace turned bright red and started blabbering. “Shit, Alvin, there was a disturbance outside the center and—”

  “What kind of disturbance?”

  “A fire in the engine of a car, belonged to one of the nurses. I couldn’t figure it out. There weren’t nobody in it and she hadn’t used it since she got in this morning. I only left the door here for maybe five minutes. When I got back, she was like this…”

  We arrived at the woman’s room. Through the open door I could see the pale, waxy pallor of her skin and the blood on the pillow beside her left ear. Something metal, ending in a wooden handle, glinted in the ear. The window through which the killer had entered was still open and the glass had been shattered in order to unhook the latch. A small sheet of sticky brown paper lay on the floor, with glass adhering to it. Whoever had killed the woman had taken the trouble to stick it to the window before breaking the glass, in order to muffle the sound and to ensure that the glass didn’t make any noise when it hit the floor.

  “Who’s been in here, apart from you?”

  “The doctor, a nurse, and the two feds,” said Wallace. The elderly doctor called Elise appeared behind us. She looked shaken and weary.

  “What happened to her?” said Martin.

  “A blade of some kind—I think it’s an ice pick—was thrust through her ear and into her brain. She was dead when we got to her.”

  “Left the pick in her,” mused Martin.

  “Clean and easy,” I said. “Nothing to tie the killer to what happened if he—or she—gets picked up.”

  Martin turned his back on me and began consulting the other deputies. I moved away as they talked and made my way toward the men’s washroom. Wallace looked back at me and I made a gagging expression. He looked away with contempt in his eyes. I spent five seconds in the washroom and then slipped out of the center through the rear exit.

  Time was running out for me. I knew Martin would try to grill me on the source of the hit. Agent Ross wasn’t far behind. At the very least, he’d hold me until he got the information he wanted, and any hope I might have of finding Catherine Demeter would disappear. I made my way back to the motel, where my car was still parked, and drove out of Haven.

  25

  T HE ROAD TO THE RUIN of the Dane house was little more than two mud tracks and the car moved along them only with a great effort, as if nature itself was conspiring against my approach. It had started to rain heavily again, and the wind and rain combined to render the wipers almost useless. I strained my eyes for the stone cross and took the turning opposite. I missed the house the first time, realizing my mistake only when the road turned into a mass of mud and fallen, rotting trees, forcing me to reverse slowly back the way I had come, until I spotted two small ruined pillars to my left and, between them, the almost roofless
walls of the Dane house briefly silhouetted against the dark sky.

  I pulled up outside the empty eyes of the windows and the gaping mouth of what was once the door, pieces of its lintel strewn on the ground like old teeth. I took the heavy Maglite from under my seat and climbed out, the rain painful on my head as I ran for what little shelter the interior of the ruin could offer.

  Over half of the roof was gone, and in the flashlight beam what remained still showed blackened and charred. There were three rooms: what had once been a kitchen and eating area, identifiable from the remains of an ancient stove in one corner; the main bedroom, now empty except for a stained mattress around which old prophylactics were scattered like the discarded skins of snakes; and a smaller room, which might have served as a children’s bedroom once but was now a mass of old timber and rusting metal bars dotted with paint tins, left there by someone too lazy to haul them to the municipal dump. The rooms smelled of old wood, of long-extinct fires, and human excrement.

  An old couch stood in one corner of the kitchen, its springs flowering through the rotting cushions. It formed a triangle with the corners of the wall, upon which the remains of some faded floral wallpaper hung tenaciously. I shined the flashlight over the back of the couch, my hand resting on the edge. It felt damp but not wet, for the remains of part of the roof still sheltered it from the worst of the elements.

  Behind the couch and almost flush with the corners of the house was what appeared to be a trapdoor some three feet at each side. It was locked and its edges seemed filthy and choked with dirt. Its hinges were bloodied with rust, and pieces of wood and old metal covered most of its surface.

  I pulled back the couch to take a closer look and started as I heard a rat scurry across the floor at my feet. It melted into the darkness in a far corner of the room and then was still. I squatted down to examine the lock and bolt, using my knife to scrape away some of the filth from around the keyhole. New steel shone through beneath the dirt. I ran the blade of the knife along the bolt, exposing a line of steel that shone like molten silver in the darkness. I tried the same experiment with the hinge but only flakes of rust greeted me.

  I examined the bolt more closely. What had appeared at first sight to be rust now looked more like varnish, carefully applied so that it would blend in with the door. The bolt’s battered look could easily have been achieved by dragging it behind a car for a while. It wasn’t a bad job, designed as it was to fool only necking teenagers seeking a thrill in a house of the dead, or children daring each other to tempt the ghosts of other children long gone.

  I had a crowbar in the car but I was reluctant to brave the driving rain again. As I shined the flashlight around the room, a steel bar some two feet long was caught in the beam. I picked it up, felt its weight, inserted it in the U of the lock, and jimmied. For a moment it seemed the bar might bend or fracture under the strain, and then there was a sharp crack as the lock broke. I pulled it free, released the bolt, and raised the door on its complaining hinges.

  A rich, heady stench of decay rose from the cellar, causing my stomach to churn. I covered my mouth and moved away, but seconds later I was vomiting by the couch, my nostrils filled with my own smell and the odor from the cellar below. When I had recovered and breathed in some fresh air outside the house, I ran to the car and took the window rag from the dashboard. I sprayed it with defogger from the glove compartment and tied it around my mouth. The defogger made my head reel but I stuck it in the pocket of my coat in case I needed it again and re-entered the house.

  Even though I breathed through my mouth, tasting the spray, the smell of putrefaction was overpowering. I descended the wooden stairs carefully, my strong left hand on the rail and the Maglite in my right with the beam shining at my feet. I didn’t want to trip on a ruined step and plunge into the darkness below.

  At the base of the steps the flashlight beam caught a glint of metal and blue-gray material. A heavy-set man in his sixties lay near the steps, his knees curled beneath him and his hands cuffed behind his back. His face was gray-white and there was a wound on his forehead, a ragged hole like a dark, exploding star. For a moment, as I shined the flashlight upon it, I thought it was an exit wound, but moving the light to the back of his head, I saw the hole in his skull gape, saw the decaying matter within and the white totem of his spine.

  The gun had probably been pressed right against his head. There was some gunpowder smudging around the forehead wound and the star-shaped rip had been caused by the gases shooting under the skin next to the bone, expanding and tearing open the forehead as they exploded. The bullet had exited messily, taking most of the back of his skull with it. The contact wound also explained the unusual position of the body: he had been shot while kneeling, looking up into the muzzle of the gun as it approached and falling sideways and back when the bullet entered. Inside his jacket was a wallet, with a driver’s license identifying him as Earl Lee Granger.

  Catherine Demeter lay slumped against the far wall of the basement, nearly opposite the stairs. Granger had probably seen her as he walked or was pushed down. She was slumped like a doll at the wall, her legs spread out before her and her hands resting palms up on the floor. One leg was bent at an unnatural angle, broken below the knee, and I guessed that she had been thrown down the cellar stairs and dragged to the wall.

  She had been shot once in the face at close range. Dried blood, brain tissue, and bone fragments surrounded her head like a bloody halo on the wall. Both bodies had begun to decay rapidly in the cellar, which seemed to stretch the length and breadth of the house.

  There were blisters on Catherine Demeter’s skin, and fluid leaked from her nose and eyes. Spiders and millipedes scuttled across her face and slipped through her hair, hunting the bugs and mites that were already feeding on the body. Flies buzzed. I guessed she had been dead for two or three days. I took a quick look around the cellar but it was empty apart from bundles of rotting newspaper, some cardboard boxes filled with old clothes, and a pile of warped timbers, the detritus of lives lived long before and now no more.

  A scuffling noise on the floor above me, the sound of wood shifting despite careful footsteps, made me turn quickly and run for the stairs. Whoever was above me heard me, for the steps now moved quicker with no regard for any noise that might be made. As my feet hit the first stairs the sound of the trapdoor hinges greeted me and I saw the patch of star-studded sky begin to shrink as the door came down. Two shots were fired randomly through the gap and I heard them impact on the wall behind me.

  The trapdoor was almost to the floor when I jammed the Maglite into the gap. There was a grunt from above and then I felt the flashlight being kicked repeatedly so that I had to grip it firmly to prevent it being wrenched from my hand. Still the bell-shaped end held firm, but my injured right shoulder ached from the strain of pushing up and holding the flashlight.

  Above me, the entire weight of my assailant was on the trapdoor as he continued to aim kicks at the flashlight. Below, I thought I heard the sound of rats scurrying in alarm, but faced with the prospect of being trapped in that cellar, I thought it might be something else. I felt that I might yet hear the sound of Catherine Demeter dragging her shattered leg across the floor and up the wooden steps, that her white fingers might grip my leg and pull me down to her.

  I had failed her. I could not protect her from the violent end in this cellar where four young children before her had met muffled, terrified deaths. She had returned to the place where her sister had perished, and in a strange circularity, she had reenacted a death that she had probably replayed many times in her mind before that day. In the moments before she died, she gained an insight into her sister’s awful end. And so she would keep me company, console me for my weakness and my helplessness in the face of her passing, and lie beside me as I died.

  As I breathed through gritted teeth, the stench of decay felt like a dead hand over my mouth and nostrils. I felt vomit rising once again and forced it down, for if I stopped pushing even for
a moment I felt sure I would die in this cellar. Momentarily the pressure above me eased and I pushed upward with all my remaining strength. It was an error that my opponent exploited to the full. The torch was kicked once, hard, and slipped through the enlarged gap. The trap-door slammed shut like the door of my tomb, its echo mocking me from the walls of the cellar. I groaned in despair and began to press futilely against the door once again, when there was an explosion from above and the pressure eased entirely, the trapdoor shooting upward and coming to rest flat on the floor.

  I flung myself out, my hand inside my jacket reaching for my gun and the flashlight beam casting wild shadows on the ceilings and walls as I landed awkwardly and painfully on the floor.

  The beam caught the lawyer Connell Hyams leaning against the wall just beyond the rim of the trapdoor, his left hand to his wounded shoulder while his right hand tried to raise his gun. His suit was soaked and his clean white shirt clung to his body like a second skin. I held him in the flashlight beam, my gun outstretched in the other hand.

  “Don’t,” I said, but the gun was rising now and his mouth curled into a snarl of fear and pain as he brought it up to fire. Two shots sounded. Neither of them was from Hyams. He jerked as each bullet hit, and his gaze moved from me to a place over my shoulder. As he fell I was already turning, the gun still following the beam of the flashlight. Through the glassless window I caught a glimpse of a thin besuited figure fading into the dark, its limbs like sheathed blades and a scar running across its narrow, cadaverous features.

  Maybe I should have called Martin then and let the police and the FBI handle the rest. I was sick and weary inside, and an almost overpowering sense of loss tore through me and threatened to unman me. The death of Catherine Demeter was like a physical pain, so that I lay for a moment on the ground, the body of Connell Hyams slumped opposite, and clutched my stomach in agony. I could hear the sound of a car as Bobby Sciorra drove away.

 

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