A song of shadows, p.22
A Song of Shadows, p.22John Connolly
‘But why kill them at all?’ asked Angel.
Walsh was about to tell Angel what he thought of people who stated the fucking obvious when he caught that lazy smile again and held his tongue.
‘And in that order?’
‘Uh-huh.’ Walsh considered the question. ‘Perlman is tortured and killed, but before he dies he reveals something to Steiger about the Tedescos, and before they die they give him something that brings him back to Ruth Winter?’
Walsh drummed his fingers on the table, then shook his head.
‘No, it’s still a lot of back-and-forth. Too much.’
He sat up straight, and assumed his best interrogator’s pose. He’d started out determined not to like these men, knowing something of what they’d done in the past, and might well do again in the future, and it disturbed him that he’d fallen so easily into conversation with them. They were chatting like they’d all attended crime school together.
‘So, now that we’ve cleared the air, and I’ve shared what I know while tacitly warning you against burning down any more towns in my state, why don’t you add to my store of knowledge about Earl Steiger and his kind?’
Just then, the waitress arrived to clear away the appetizer plates.
‘You barely touched your crab cakes,’ she admonished Louis. ‘Were they okay?’
‘They were real good,’ said Louis. ‘I just need to watch my food intake, stay slim and handsome. My friend over there’ – he indicated Walsh with an outstretched finger – ‘he’s not so concerned.’
Walsh raised his ring finger, displaying his wedding band.
‘I’m married,’ he said. ‘Means I can eat anything I like. Woman’s stuck with me.’
‘I’m sure you were quite the catch,’ said the waitress.
‘The whole crew had to pull together to land him,’ said Angel.
Walsh scowled at him. The waitress patted Walsh on the shoulder.
‘Don’t pay them any attention, honey,’ she said. ‘I don’t like seeing food wasted.’
‘Burn,’ said Angel, once she’d departed. ‘You’re like a food disposal unit to her.’
‘Fuck you,’ said Walsh, and returned his attention to Louis. ‘Go on: Steiger.’
‘I can’t tell you more than that he may – may – have worked through this man Cambion,’ said Louis, ‘and probably has for a long time, given the children’s identities that he’s assumed. Using dead kids for ghosts is one of Cambion’s hallmarks.’
‘This Cambion – is he the kind to answer questions?’
‘Only with half-truths. The problem is finding him. He’d gone underground for a long time, and only surfaced earlier this year before disappearing again. He’s a hunted man. Even if Steiger was one of Cambion’s, and you could track him down, he wouldn’t give away the identity of the buyer on the job, or not for a price that you could afford.’
Their main courses arrived. Walsh’s plate was almost entirely hidden by dry-rub ribs. It looked like someone had killed and barbecued a dinosaur.
‘If you finish those, I’ll give you five bucks,’ said Angel. ‘Well, I’ll send your widow five bucks.’
‘You’re drinking a white wine called Queen Anne’s Lace,’ said Walsh. ‘As a straight man, I’m ashamed to be seen with you.’
‘Since we’re playing guess-the-reasoning,’ said Louis, ‘why did Steiger let Ruth Winter’s child live? You saw his face: a man who looks like that doesn’t stay hidden by leaving witnesses to his crimes.’
Walsh used a stripped rib held in his right hand to count off the possibilities on the fingers of his left.
‘One: he’s soft-hearted.’
‘Two: he was only paid for one killing, and doesn’t murder for free.’
‘I’ve known men like that. They’d make an exception for a witness, though.’
‘Three: he was told not to harm the girl.’
‘I’d go with three,’ said Louis.
‘So would I.’
Louis sipped his wine. It was good, as was his blackened haddock. The killings, and the motivations behind them, did not trouble him on an emotional level, beyond the fact that they had put Parker back in hospital, if only for a couple of days. As a professional, though, they struck him as curious. He noticed that Walsh had gone quiet and was concentrating on his food. Perhaps it was the effort of eating all those ribs, or Walsh had decided that he had gotten all that might prove useful out of his dinner companions for now. In truth, Louis had not given him very much, yet had certainly held nothing back.
Parker should have been with them. The private detective had a way of making the kind of imaginative leaps that were beyond so many of his peers in law enforcement, and were certainly beyond Louis. He would have found the flaw in their reasoning, the diverging paths at which they had gone astray. After all, it was Parker, from his hospital bed, who had told Walsh about the mezuzah on Ruth Winter’s door, and how that had initially caused him to speculate on a connection between Perlman and herself. It was also Parker who had set in motion the chain of events that led to Perlman’s body being autopsied in the first place, and all of this while he was supposed to be recuperating from gunshot wounds.
Louis and Angel missed Parker’s company. They had grown so used to being part of the investigator’s existence, and the investigator being part of their own, that the months since his shooting seemed strangely empty, as though they were being held in stasis, waiting for Parker to return to them. All Louis could say for certain was that when he looked into Parker’s eyes he saw a man in the process of reformation, and he had an image of a sword melting in a forge, there to be molded into a new instrument, although if that was to be a weapon remained to be established.
Suddenly Louis didn’t want his fish, or his wine. He looked at Angel, and Angel looked back at him. His partner smiled, and had they not been in the company of Walsh, Louis might well have touched his hand.
Outside the night pressed itself enviously against the glass, seeking to break through and smother them all.
At the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Charlie Parker stared out at that same darkness and saw his reflection floating in its midst, as though he himself were lost in a void. Below him lay the city, and traffic, and people, but he took in none of it. In his mind he walked by the shore of a lake, a child holding his hand, his dead wife shadowing them, whispering warnings to him while she hid herself from her god.
A nurse entered his room, pulling him back to reality. He had moved from his bed and was lying semi-recumbent on an adjustable armchair, his feet outstretched. Sitting upright was uncomfortable for him, but standing or lying caused him little trouble. The nurse adjusted his cushions – he hid the pain that it caused him behind a wince disguised as a smile – and inquired if he needed anything. He wanted nothing but to be left alone, but thanked her and asked if she could pour him some water from the pitcher on the bedside table. He didn’t want to give her any cause to be concerned about him because of silence or withdrawal. He had been told that he might be able to leave in the morning once the surgeon had given him the all clear, and he planned to let nothing get in the way of that likelihood. (The smartest move he’d ever made was not allowing his health insurance to lapse, otherwise he’d have been living out of his car. His policy had even covered his therapy at Brook House, once they’d moderated their rate. That said, he still made sure that any doctor who even looked in his direction did so as part of his coverage.) The nurse gave him the water, and he sipped it for appearance’s sake before she left.
He was no longer receiving fluids intravenously, but the needle remained inserted in the back of his hand. He disliked the feel and the sight of it. He wanted it gone. It bothered him more than the stitches in his side from the keyhole surgery, where they’d gone in to repair the damage caused by the blow he had received from the man who called himself Earl Steiger. He had been fortunate, the surgeon
Parker had been thinking about Steiger a lot, but not in the way that the counseling psychologist might have wished. She had paid a brief visit earlier that day, offering her services. She was young and genuine, and so far out of her depth with him that, even had he felt the urge to open up to her, he would have stopped himself for fear of frightening her out of her chosen profession.
The fact that he had been under Steiger’s gun didn’t register with Parker. He had been under guns before, and learned that there were only two possible outcomes: either the gun did not fire, leaving all relatively well, or the gun fired, leading to death – in which case he would know nothing more – or injury. He had survived the latter, and he knew that he could take the pain. It was terrible, but it had not killed him.
No, what he kept coming back to was the look of surprise on Steiger’s face as the dune collapsed beneath him: shock at the disappearance of the ground from under his feet, but also a kind of astonishment that Death could have found time in his busy schedule to come calling at last, and in such a form.
And then, beyond Steiger and his dying, there was Sam, and her demeanor as the man who had been threatening her father vanished in a flood of white sand: her implacable fury, and the depth of her concentration, evidence of the exertion of a great effort of will. In that moment she was both his daughter and something else, something beyond reckoning. He did not want to say it. He did not want to speak it aloud. But he still heard his own voice say the words as he stared into the dark, conversing with the ghost of himself that hung suspended in the blackness.
She did it. My daughter willed him dead, and he died.
My daughter. What is my daughter?
They were almost done. Louis tried to ignore the fact that Angel was having coffee with his wine, although the flicker of annoyance that crossed his face every time Angel followed a sip of one with the other gave him away. Walsh, having reached his limit on beer, was sticking to water.
As the meal concluded, the conversation moved on to other subjects: Parker, briefly; Cory Bloom’s condition; and, once Walsh realized that they weren’t trying to score points off either him or the Maine State Police, Oran Wilde.
‘So you’re looking for an accomplice?’ asked Angel.
‘Like you said earlier, he’s damn bright for a teenager. Somebody has to be hiding him.’
‘Unless he didn’t do it,’ said Louis, ‘and someone else killed his family.’
‘But then why spare Oran?’
‘Maybe he didn’t.’
‘Does it look like the work of a woman to you?’
‘Gunshots? Fire? No, it doesn’t. We’re keeping an open mind – mainly because we don’t have a whole lot of choice – but Oran doing the killings still looks like the most obvious solution. It’s like that Occam’s razor business: the simplest solution is usually the right one.’
‘Except Occam never wrote that,’ said Louis.
‘Didn’t he?’ said Walsh. ‘Next you’ll be telling me that he didn’t even own a razor.’
‘He was a monk, and they had to shave their heads, so he probably did – or else he borrowed one,’ said Louis. ‘That’s not the point. The point is that Occam didn’t think that the simplest solution was usually right. What he wrote was that “plurality must never be posited without necessity”, and only in a limited context. He wasn’t thinking of homicide investigations, or not that anyone can tell. Neither was he suggesting that the simpler a solution, the better.’
‘Is he always like this?’ Walsh asked Angel.
‘Only with wine,’ said Angel. ‘Actually, strike that: yes, he is always like this. He does still surprise me with his knowledge, though, even after all these years.’
Louis let them talk. He was gifted with considerable patience. He could not have remained with Angel otherwise. When they had finished amusing themselves, he continued speaking as though they were not present, and he was working out the solution to a problem aloud, but alone.
‘Oran Wilde’s family dies one day after the body of Bruno Perlman washes up at Boreas,’ he said. ‘There is a certain type of man – a certain type of criminal – who might take the view that the way to distract attention from one violent crime is to commit another, especially in an area, or a state, where violent crime is untypical. It won’t work in Detroit or Oakland or Memphis, not in the same way. In those cities, it would be a question of hiding one body among others. In Maine, it would be a matter of stretching resources, a sleight of hand, forcing the authorities to concentrate on one action or the other, but not both at the same time.’
‘You’re suggesting a connection between the Wilde family and what happened in Boreas? On what evidence?’
‘None but my own impressions. If I were ruthless enough’ – Louis let the conditional clause hang for a moment, as much to give himself time to consider its implications as his listeners – ‘and the stakes were sufficiently high, then I might consider it worth my while to kill many to draw attention from one. It would be like starting a fire in one corner of a room to disguise the fact that you’d lit a match in another.’
‘I don’t buy it,’ said Walsh.
‘Of course you don’t,’ said Louis. ‘You just misquoted William of Occam. A man clever enough to do this would know that an overworked police force, even with the help of outside agencies, would be inclined to follow the straightest path, the most obvious solution. He’s adding variables in the knowledge that you’ll dismiss them, or most of them. Ultimately, it’s a smoke screen: the solution is simple, but not as simple as you’ve made it out to be. There is no connection between the Wildes and Boreas, but that’s the connection.’
‘You’d never make a cop,’ said Walsh. ‘You’re too creative.’
‘Damn,’ said Louis. ‘And I was banking on that thirty-five grand starting salary to buy my yacht.’
‘What about the message that Oran Wilde left?’
‘From what I read, he didn’t leave a message. The message was sent later. And what did it say: “I hated my family and burned our house down, but I’m misunderstood” or some shit like that? What the fuck kind of kid kills his family, then takes the time to sit down a day or two later and write a message to his buddy that basically says nothing at all, that doesn’t even ask for help?’
‘That wasn’t really the first message,’ said Walsh, ‘but I take the point. Yeah, the texts we’ve picked up are odd. Again, could be the accomplice. Suppose I accept the idea of complications and variables. The messages, the dead homeless guy, they’re just muddying the waters. But I have no reason to buy your central thesis about a link between Oran Wilde and Boreas.’
‘True,’ said Louis. ‘I was just thinking aloud.’
‘And Earl Steiger couldn’t have killed the Wildes, the Tedescos, Perlman, and Ruth Winter. That’s just not possible.’
‘No, it’s not. You’re back to an accomplice, but maybe just not the kind you thought.’
Walsh wanted to go home, in part because his wife would be in bed by the time he got back, and he liked slipping under the sheets when she was already there, to feel her move as she woke to his presence, to return her goodnight kiss, and hear her sigh contentedly as she returned to sleep, happy that her husband had come back to her safe and sound. Such small pleasures made life worth living. But he was also looking forward to the journey, because he did a lot of his best thinking when he was driving alone, and Louis had given him much to think abo
Walsh called for the check. When it eventually arrived, it remained in the center of the table, untouched and unwanted.
‘Hey, man,’ Angel said to Walsh, ‘why don’t you pick that up and see what it is?’
Walsh reluctantly reached for his wallet.
‘I figured you’d stiff me.’
‘And after all we’ve done for you,’ said Angel.
Walsh placed his credit card over the check, and the waitress whisked both away.
‘One final question,’ said Walsh. ‘How does a man who looks like Steiger manage to stay under the radar for so long?’
‘If you look strange or different, you get pretty good at hiding yourself,’ said Louis. ‘You could choose to remain in sight, if you’re brave enough, but that wouldn’t work for a killer like Steiger. He needed the shadows. And he had help.’
‘Cambion knows how to hide.’
Walsh’s credit card was returned. He added a good tip. He wasn’t cheap.
‘Either of you ever hear of a man named Francis Galton?’ he asked, as he reached for his coat.
Both Louis and Angel took their time answering. With Louis in particular, it was a matter of flicking through the Rolodex in his head just to make sure that, at some point in the past, he hadn’t killed someone named Francis Galton.
‘Not that I can recall,’ he said at last. Angel concurred.
‘He was a founder of the science of eugenics – you know, improving the human race through selective reproduction, that kind of thing.’
A Song of Shadows by John Connolly / Thrillers & Crime / Mystery & Detective / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes