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The killing kind, p.23
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       The Killing Kind, p.23

           John Connolly
 

  “It was you, wasn’t it? It was you who told Grace about the Fellowship. Did you set her on their trail knowing what they would do to her? I don’t believe that your husband said anything to her about it, and her thesis dealt with the past, not the present, so there was no reason for her to start prying into the organization. But you must have been aware of what your husband was doing, of the moves he was making against them. What did you say to her, Mrs. Mercier? What information did you give her that led those people to kill her?”

  Deborah Mercier bared her teeth at me and her fingernails raked across the back of my hand, immediately drawing blood. “I’ll make sure my husband ruins your life for what you just said to me,” she snarled, as I released her hand.

  “I don’t think so. I think when he finds out that you sent his daughter to her death, then it’s your life that won’t be worth living.”

  I stood as she snatched up her bag and started for the hallway. Before she could reach the kitchen door, I blocked her with my arm.

  “There’s one more thing you should know, Mrs. Mercier. You and your husband have set in motion a chain of events that you can’t control. There are people out there who are prepared to kill to protect themselves. So you should be glad that your husband is paying me because, as of now, I’m the best chance you have of finding those people before they come after both of you.”

  She stared straight ahead as I spoke. When I had finished, I lowered my hand and she walked quickly to the door. She left it open behind her, and I watched as she started the Mercedes and turned it quickly onto the road. I looked down at my hand and the four deep parallel lines she had left on it. Blood ran down my fingers and pooled at the nails and I thought, for a moment, that they looked a lot like Deborah Mercier’s. I cleaned the cuts under the faucet, then put on my jacket and a pair of leather gloves to cover the wound, grabbed my keys, and headed out to my car.

  I should have asked her for a ride, I thought, as I followed the lights of her car all the way to Prouts Neck. I kept far enough back so as not to arouse her suspicion, but I was still close enough to make the security barrier before it closed behind her.

  There were five or six cars in the parking lot when I pulled up. Mrs. Mercier had already disappeared into the house and the porn star with the mustache was lumbering forward from the porch. He was wearing an earpiece and he had a radio mike attached to his lapel. I guessed that security had been stepped up somewhat after Epstein’s death.

  “This is a private party,” he said. “You’ll have to leave.”

  “I don’t think so,” I replied.

  “Then I’ll have to make you leave,” he said. He looked happy at the prospect, and poked a finger into my chest to emphasize the point.

  I grabbed the finger with my left hand, gripped his wrist tightly with my right, and pulled. There was a soft pop as the finger dislocated, and the porn star’s mouth opened wide in pain. I turned him around, pulling his arm behind his back, and shoved him hard into the side of the Mercedes. His head banged emptily against it and he collapsed on the ground, holding his uninjured hand against his scalp.

  “If you’re a good boy, I’ll fix your finger on my way out,” I said.

  A couple of other security guards were moving toward me when Jack Mercier appeared on the steps and called them off. They stopped and formed a loose circle around me, like wolves waiting for the signal to fall upon their prey.

  “It seems like you’ve invited yourself to my party, Mr. Parker,” said Mercier. “I guess you’d better come in.”

  I walked up the steps and followed him through the house. It didn’t look like much of a party. There was a lot of expensive booze floating around on trays and a handful of people stood about in nice clothes, but nobody seemed to be having a very good time. A man I recognized as Warren Ober put down his champagne flute and started to follow us.

  Mercier led me into the same book-lined room in which we had sat the previous week, the rhombus of sun now replaced by a thin trickle of moonlight. The bug was gone, probably already devoured by something bigger and meaner than it could ever be. There were no coffee cups brought this time. Jack Mercier wasn’t offering me his hospitality. His eyes were red rimmed and he had shaved himself badly, so that patches of bristle remained under his chin and below his nostrils. Even his white dress shirt looked wrinkled, and sweat patches showed beneath his armpits when he took off his jacket. His bow tie was slightly crooked, and despite his cologne I thought I detected a sour smell.

  I walked straight to the photograph of Mercier and Ober with Beck and Epstein, and removed it from the wall. I threw it to him and he caught it awkwardly in his arms. “What haven’t you told me?” I said, as the door opened and Ober entered. He closed it behind him and both of us looked at Mercier.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean, Mr. Mercier, what were the four of you doing that could have drawn these people down on you? How do you think Grace became involved?”

  He recoiled visibly at the question.

  “And why did you hire me, because you must have known who was responsible for her death?”

  He didn’t say anything at first, just sat down heavily in an armchair across from me and put his head in his hands. “Did you know that Curtis Peltier was dead?” he asked me, in tones so soft they were almost inaudible.

  I felt an ache in my stomach and leaned back against the table to steady myself.

  “Nobody told me.”

  “He was only found this evening. He’d been dead for days. I was going to call you as soon as my guests left.”

  “How did he die?”

  “Somebody broke into his house, tortured him, then slit his arms in his bathtub.”

  He looked up at me, his eyes demanding pity and understanding. In that instant, I almost struck Jack Mercier.

  “He never knew, did he?” I said. “He didn’t know anything about the Fellowship, about Beck or Epstein. The only thing that mattered to him was his daughter, and he gave her everything he could. I saw the way he lived. He had a big house that he couldn’t keep clean, and he lived in his kitchen. Do you even know where your kitchen is, Mr. Mercier?”

  He smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. There was no compassion in it, no kindness. I doubted if any voter had ever seen Jack Mercier smile like that. “My daughter, Mr. Parker,” he growled. “Grace was my child.”

  “You’re deluded, Mr. Mercier.” I couldn’t keep the disgust from my voice.

  “I stayed out of her life because that was what we all agreed, but I was always concerned for her. When she applied to the scholarship fund, I saw a chance to help her. Hell, I’d have given her the money even if she’d wanted to take surfing at Malibu Tech. She intended to study religious movements in the state during the last fifty years, and one in particular. I encouraged her to do that in order to have her near me while she studied the books in my collection. It was my fault, my mistake.

  “Because we didn’t know about the link, not then,” he said, and the weight of his guilt fell upon him like an executioner’s blade.

  “What link?”

  Behind us, Warren Ober coughed. “I have to advise you, Jack, not to say anything more in Mr. Parker’s presence.” He was using his best, five-hundred-dollar-per-hour voice. As far as Ober was concerned, Grace’s death was immaterial. All that mattered was ensuring that Jack Mercier’s guilt remained private, not public.

  The gun was in my hand before I even knew it. Through a red haze I saw Ober backing away and then the muzzle of the gun was buried in the soft flesh beneath his chin. “You say one more word,” I whispered, “and I won’t be held responsible for my actions.”

  Despite the fear in his eyes, Ober spat the next six words. “You are a thug, Mr. Parker,” he said.

  “So are you, Mr. Ober,” I replied. “The only difference is that you’re better paid than I am.”

  “Stop!”

  It was the voice of an emperor, a voice used to being obeyed. I didn’t disappoint i
t. I removed the gun from Ober’s chin and put it away.

  “Safety was on,” I told him. “Can’t be too careful.”

  Ober adjusted his bow tie and started calculating the man-hours required to ruin me in court.

  Mercier poured himself a brandy and another for Ober. He waved the decanter at me, but I declined. He handed Ober a glass, took a long sip from his own, then resumed his seat and began talking as if nothing had happened.

  “Did Curtis tell you about our respective familial connections to the Aroostook Baptists?”

  I nodded. Behind me, a cloud passed over the moon and the light that had shone into the room was suddenly lost in its shadow.

  “They were lost for thirty-seven years, until now,” he said softly. “I believe that the man responsible for their deaths is still alive.”

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  The first hint that Faulkner was alive had come in March, and it arrived from an unlikely source. A Faulkner Apocalypse was offered for auction, and Jack Mercier had acquired it, just as he had successfully acquired the twelve other extant examples of Faulkner’s work. While he spoke, he removed one from his cabinet and handed it to me.

  Faulkner had the talent of a medieval illuminator, using decorated letters interweaved with fantastic animals to begin each chapter. The ink was iron gall, the same mix of tannins and iron sulfate used in medieval times. Each chapter contained illustrations drawn from ornate works similar to the Cloisters Apocalypse, images of judgment, punishment, and torment executed in a detail that bordered on the sadistic.

  “This was the first Apocalypse, inspired by Cranach, and the illustrations and calligraphy are consistent throughout,” explained Mercier. “Other Faulkner Apocalypses are influenced by later illustrators, such as Meidner and Grosz, and the script is correspondingly more modern, although in some ways equally beautiful.”

  But the thirteenth Apocalypse acquired by Mercier was different. An adhesive had been used on the pages before stitching because the weight of the paper was lighter than before and the binder appeared to have experienced some difficulty in applying the stitches. Mercier, a bibliophile, had spotted traces of the adhesive shortly after his purchase and had sent the book to be examined by a specialist. The calligraphy and brush strokes on the illustrations were authentic—Faulkner had created the Apocalypse, without doubt—but the adhesive was of a type that had been in production for less than a decade and had been used in the original construction of the book and not during any later repairs.

  Faulkner, it seemed, was alive, or at least he had been until comparatively recently, and if he could be found then an answer to the riddle of the disappearance of the Aroostook Baptists might at last be within reach.

  “To be honest, my interest was in the books, not the people,” said Mercier, an admission that hardened my growing dislike for him. “My familial connections to Faulkner’s flock added an extra frisson, but nothing more. I found the nature of his work fascinating.”

  It was the source of the thirteenth Apocalypse that led Mercier to the Fellowship; it emerged, after investigation, that it had been sold through a firm of third-rate Waterville lawyers by Carter Paragon, to cover his gambling debts. But rather than pounce on Paragon, Mercier decided to wait and put pressure on his organization by other means. He found Epstein, who had already suspected that the Fellowship was far more dangerous than it appeared and was willing to be the nominal challenger of its tax-exempt status. He found Alison Beck, who had witnessed the killing of her husband years before and who was now pressing for the case to be reopened and a full investigation made into a possible link to the Fellowship, based on threats received from its minions in the months before David Beck’s death. If Mercier could tear apart the front that was the Fellowship, then what was behind it might at last be revealed.

  Meanwhile, Grace’s work on the Aroostook Baptists had continued. Mercier had largely forgotten about it, until her life was ended in the sound of a gunshot that sent owls shooting from the trees and small animals scurrying into the undergrowth. Then Peltier had come to him, and the bond that linked them both to Grace had drawn them uneasily together.

  “She went after the Fellowship, Mr. Mercier, and she died for it.”

  He looked at me, and I saw his eyes desperately try to veil themselves in ignorance. “I don’t know why she went after them,” he continued, a denial of an accusation that had not yet been made. Something bubbled in his voice, as if he was struggling to keep his bile down.

  “I think you do,” I said. “I think that’s why you hired me—to confirm what you already suspected.”

  And at last I saw the veil tear and fall from his eyes in flames. He seemed about to utter some further denial, until a female voice was heard outside the door and the words melted like snowflakes on his tongue.

  Deborah Mercier burst into the room. She looked at me in shock, then at her husband.

  “He followed me here, Jack,” she said. “He broke into our house and assaulted our staff. Why are you sitting there drinking with him?”

  “Deborah, . . .” Mercier began, in what might, in other circumstances, have been soothing tones but now sounded like the whispered assurances of an executioner to a condemned man.

  “Don’t!” she screamed. “Just don’t. Have him arrested. Have him thrown out of the house. I don’t care if you have him killed, but get him out of our lives!”

  Jack Mercier stood and walked over to his wife. He held her firmly by the shoulders and looked down, and for the first time she seemed smaller and less powerful than he.

  “Deborah,” he repeated, and drew her to him. Initially it seemed like a gesture of love, but as she struggled in his grip it became the opposite. “Deborah, what have you done?”

  “I don’t know what you mean,” she said. “What do you mean, Jack?”

  “Please, Deborah,” he said. “Don’t lie. Please don’t lie, not now.”

  Instantly, her struggles ceased and she began to cry.

  “We have no further need of your services, Mr. Parker,” said Mercier, as her body shook. His back was to me as he spoke, and he made no effort to turn. “Thank you for your help.”

  “They’ll come after you,” I said.

  “We’ll deal with them. I intend to hand the Faulkner Apocalypse over to the police after my daughter’s wedding. That will be an end to it. Now, please, leave my house.”

  As I walked from the room, I heard Deborah Mercier whisper, over and over again, “I’m sorry, Jack, I’m sorry.” Something in her voice made me look back, and the glare from a single cold eye impaled me like a butterfly on a pin.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  The porn star wasn’t anywhere to be found as I left, so I couldn’t reset his finger. I was about to get in my car when Warren Ober walked down the steps behind me and stood in the shell of light from the open door.

  “Mr. Parker,” he called.

  I paused and watched as his features tried to compose themselves into a smile. They gave up the struggle at the halfway point, making him look like a man who has just tasted a bad piece of fish.

  “We’ll forget about that little incident in the study, so long as you understand that you are to take no further part in investigating Grace Peltier’s death or any events connected with it.”

  I shook my head. “It doesn’t work that way. As I already explained to Mrs. Mercier, her husband just bought my time and whatever expertise I could bring to the case. He didn’t buy my obedience, he didn’t buy my conscience, and he didn’t buy me. I don’t like walking away from unsolved cases, Mr. Ober. It raises moral difficulties.”

  Ober’s face fell, his carefully ordered features crumbling under the weight of his disappointment. “Then you’d better find yourself a good lawyer, Mr. Parker.”

  I didn’t reply. I just drove away, leaving Ober standing in the light like a solitary angel waiting to be consumed by the darkness.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  Jack Mercier hadn’t hired me to find out who had killed
Grace, or that was not his primary reason for hiring me. He wanted to find out why she had been looking into the Fellowship to begin with, and I think he had suspected the answer all along, that he had seen it in his wife’s eyes every time Grace was mentioned. Deborah Mercier wanted Grace to go away, to disappear. She and Jack already had a daughter together; he didn’t need another. Through her husband, she knew just how dangerous those involved in the Fellowship could be, and she fed Grace to them.

  I parked in the guest lot of the Black Point Inn and joined Angel and Louis in the big dining room, where they were sitting at a window, their table littered with the remains of what looked like a very enjoyable, and pretty expensive, dinner. I was happy to see them spending Mercier’s money. It was tainted by its contact with his family. I ordered coffee and dessert, then told them all that had taken place. When I had concluded, Angel shook his head.

  “That Deborah Mercier, she’s some piece of work.”

  We left the table and moved into the bar. Angel, I couldn’t help but notice, was still wearing the red boots, to which he had added a pair of substandard chinos and a white shirt with a twisted seam. He caught me looking at the shirt and smiled happily.

  “TJ Maxx,” he said. “Got me a whole new wardrobe for fifty-nine ninety-five.”

  “Pity you didn’t climb into it and throw yourself in the sea,” I replied.

  They ordered beers, and a club soda for me. We were the only people in the bar.

  “So what now?” asked Louis.

  “Tomorrow night we pay a long overdue visit to the Fellowship,” I replied.

  “And until then?”

  Outside, the trees whispered and the waves broke whitely on Crescent Beach. I could see the lights of Old Orchard floating in the darkness like the glowing lures of strange, unseen sea creatures moving through the depths of black oceans. They called me to them, these echoes of the past, of my childhood and of my youth.

  Like those nightmarish, colorless predators, the past could devour you if you weren’t careful. It had consumed Grace Peltier, its dead hand reaching up from the mud and silt of a lake in northern Maine and pulling her down. Grace, Curtis, Jack Mercier: all of them linked together by the dreams, disappearance, and eventual exhumation of the Aroostook Baptists. Grace wasn’t even born when they vanished, yet part of her had always been buried with them, and her short life had been blighted by the mystery of their disappearance.

 
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