Every dead thing, p.25
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       Every Dead Thing, p.25

           John Connolly
 

  “Where are all the children, the adults?” I said to Woolrich.

  “Eighteenth birthday party at a house two miles away,” he replied. “Only Tee Jean and the old lady supposed to be here. And Florence.”

  The door opposite Tante Marie’s room stood wide open and I could see a jumble of furniture, boxes of clothes, and piles of children’s toys. A window was open and the curtains stirred slightly in the night air. We turned to face the door of Tante Marie’s bedroom. It was slightly ajar and I could see moonlight within, disturbed and distorted by the shadows of the trees. Behind me, Morphy had the shotgun raised and Woolrich had the SIG held double-handed close to his cheek. I put my finger on the trigger of the Smith & Wesson, flicked open the door with the side of my foot, and dived low into the room.

  A bloody handprint lay on the wall by the door and I could hear the sound of night creatures in the darkness beyond the window. The moonlight cast drifting shadows across a long sideboard, a huge closet filled with almost identically patterned dresses, and a long, dark chest on the floor near the door. But the room was dominated by the giant bed that stood against the far wall, and by its occupant, Tante Marie Aguillard.

  Tante Marie: the old woman who had reached out to a dying girl as the blade began to cut her face; the old woman who had called out to me in my wife’s voice when I last stood in this room, offering me some kind of comfort in my sorrow; the old woman who had, in turn, reached out to me in her final torment.

  She sat naked on the bed, a huge woman undiminished by death. Her head and upper body rested against a mountain of pillows, stained dark by her blood. Her face was a red-and-purple mass. Her jaw hung open, revealing long teeth stained yellow with tobacco. The flashlight caught her thighs, her thick arms, and the hands that reached towards the center of her body.

  “God have mercy,” said Morphy.

  Tante Marie had been split from sternum to groin and the skin pulled back to be held in place by her own hands. As with her son, most of her internal organs had been removed and her stomach was a hollow cavern, framed by ribs, through which a section of her spine gleamed dully in the light. Woolrich’s flashlight moved lower, toward her groin. I stopped it with my hand.

  “No,” I said. “No more.”

  Then a shout came from outside, startling in the silence, and we were running together toward the front of the house.

  Florence Aguillard stood swaying on the grass in front of her brother’s body. Her mouth was curled down at either side, the bottom lip turned in on itself in grief. She held the long-barreled Colt in her right hand, the muzzle pointing toward the ground. Her white dress was patterned with blue flowers, obscured in places by her mother’s blood. She made no noise, although her body was racked by silent cries.

  Woolrich and I came down the steps slowly; Morphy and a deputy stayed on the porch. The second pair of deputies had come from the back of the house and stood facing Florence, Toussaint slightly to the right of them. To Florence’s left, I could see the figure of Tee Jean hanging on the tree and, beside him, Brouchard with his unholstered SIG.

  “Florence,” said Woolrich softly, putting his gun back in his shoulder holster. “Florence, put the gun down.”

  Her body shook and her left hand wrapped itself tightly around her waist. She bent over slightly and shook her head slowly from side to side.

  “Florence,” repeated Woolrich. “It’s me.”

  She turned her head toward us. There was misery in her eyes, misery and hurt and guilt and rage all vying for supremacy in her troubled mind.

  She raised the gun slowly and pointed it in our direction. I saw the deputies bring their weapons up quickly. Toussaint had already assumed a sharpshooter’s stance, his arms in front of his body, his gun unwavering.

  “No!” shouted Woolrich, his right hand raised. I saw the cops look toward him in doubt and then toward Morphy. He nodded and they relaxed slightly, still keeping their weapons trained on Florence.

  The Colt moved from Woolrich to me, and still Florence Aguillard shook her head slowly. I could hear her voice, soft in the night, repeating Woolrich’s word like a mantra—“No no no no no”—and then she turned the gun toward herself, placed the barrel in her mouth, and pulled the trigger.

  The explosion sounded like a cannon’s roar in the night air. I could hear the sound of birds’ wings flapping and small animals hurtling through the undergrowth as Florence’s body crumpled to the ground. Woolrich stumbled to his knees beside her and reached out to touch her face with his left hand, his right reaching instinctively, futilely, for the pulse in her neck. Then he lifted her and buried her face in his sweat-stained shirt, his mouth open in pain.

  In the distance, red lights shone. Farther away, I could hear the sound of a helicopter’s blades scything at the darkness.

  32

  T HE DAY DAWNED heavy and humid in New Orleans, the smell of the Mississippi strong in the morning air. I left my guest house and skirted the Quarter, trying to clear the tiredness from my head and my bones. I eventually ended up on Loyola, the traffic adding to the oppressive warmth. The sky overhead was gray and overcast with the threat of rain, and dark clouds hung over the city, seeming to lock in the heat. I bought a copy of the Times-Picayune from a vending machine and read it as I stood before City Hall. The newspaper was so heavy with corruption that it was a wonder the paper didn’t rot: two policemen arrested on drug trafficking charges, a federal investigation into the conduct of the last Senate elections, suspicions about a former governor. New Orleans itself, with its run-down buildings, the grim shopping precinct of Poydras, the Woolworth store with its Closing Down notices, seemed to embody this corruption, so it was impossible to tell whether the city had infected the populace or if some of its people were dragging down the city with them.

  Chep Morrison had built the imposing City Hall shortly after he returned from the Second World War to dethrone the millionaire Mayor Maestri and drag New Orleans into the twentieth century. Some of Woolrich’s cronies still remembered Morrison with fondness, albeit a fondness arising from the fact that police corruption had flourished under him, along with numbers rackets, prostitution, and gambling. More than three decades later, the police department in New Orleans was still trying to deal with his legacy. For almost two decades, the Big Sleazy had been top of the league table of complaints about police misconduct, numbering over one thousand complaints per year.

  The NOPD had been founded on the principal of “the cut”: like the police forces in other southern cities—Savannah, Richmond, Mobile—it had been formed in the eighteenth century to control and monitor the slave population, with the police receiving a portion of the reward for capturing runaways. In the nineteenth century, members of the force were accused of rapes and murders, lynchings and robberies, of taking graft to allow gambling and prostitution to continue. The fact that police had to stand for election annually meant that they were forced to sell their allegiance to the two main political parties. The force manipulated government elections, intimidated voters, even participated in the massacre of moderates at the Mechanics Institute in 1866.

  New Orleans’s first black mayor, Dutch Morial, tried to clean up the department at the start of the nineteen eighties. If the independent Metropolitan Crime Commission, which had a quarter of a century’s start on Morial, couldn’t clean up the department, what hope did a black mayor have? The predominantly white police union went on strike and the Mardi Gras was cancelled. The national guard had to be called out to maintain order. I didn’t know if the situation had improved since then. I hoped that it had.

  New Orleans is also homicide central, with about four hundred Code 30s—NOPD code for a homicide—each year. Maybe half get solved, leaving a lot of people walking the streets of New Orleans with blood on their hands. That’s something the city fathers prefer not to tell the tourists, although maybe a lot of the tourists would still come anyway. After all, when a city is so hot that it offers riverboat gambling, twenty-four-hour bars, s
trippers, prostitution, and a ready supply of drugs, all within a few blocks of one another, there’s got to be some kind of downside to it all.

  I walked on, eventually stopping to sit on the edge of a potted tree outside the pink New Orleans Center, the tower of the Hyatt rising behind it, while I waited for Woolrich to show. In the midst of the previous night’s confusion, we had arranged a meeting for breakfast. I had considered staying in Lafayette or Baton Rouge, but Woolrich indicated that the local cops might not like having me so close to the investigation, and as he pointed out, he himself was based in New Orleans.

  I gave him twenty minutes, and when he didn’t arrive, I began to walk down Poydras Street, its canyon of office buildings already thronged with businesspeople and tourists heading for the Mississippi.

  At Jackson Square, La Madeleine was packed with breakfasters. The smell of baking bread from its ovens seemed to draw people in like cartoon characters pulled along by a visible, snakelike scent. I ordered a pastry and coffee and finished reading the Times-Picayune. It’s next to impossible to get the New York Times in New Orleans. I read somewhere that the New Orleans citizenry bought fewer copies of the New York Times than any other city in the United States, although they made up for it by buying more formal wear than anywhere else. If you’re going out to formal dinners every evening, you don’t get much time to read the New York Times.

  Amid the magnolia and banana trees of the square, tourists watched tap dancers and mimes and a slim black man who maintained a steady, sensual rhythm by hitting his knees with a pair of plastic bottles. There was a light breeze blowing from the river, but it was fighting a losing battle with the morning heat and contented itself with tossing the hair of the artists hanging their paintings on the square’s black iron fence and threatening the cards of the fortune-tellers outside the cathedral.

  I felt strangely distant from what I had seen at Tante Marie’s house. I had expected it to bring back memories of what I had seen in my own kitchen, the sight of my own wife and child reduced to flesh, sinew, and bone. Instead, I felt only a heaviness, like a dark, wet blanket over my consciousness.

  I flicked through the newspaper once again. The killings had made the bottom of the front page, but the details of the mutilations had been kept from the press. It was hard to tell how long that would last; rumors would probably begin to circulate at the funerals.

  Inside, there were pictures of two bodies, those of Florence and Tee Jean, being taken across the bridge toward waiting ambulances. The bridge had been weakened by the traffic and there were fears that it might collapse if the ambulances tried to cross. Mercifully, there were no pictures of Tante Marie being transported on a special gurney to her ambulance, her huge bulk seeming to mock mortality even as it lay shrouded in black.

  I looked up to see Woolrich approaching the table. He had changed his tan suit for a light gray linen; the tan had been covered in Florence Aguillard’s blood. He was unshaven and there were black bags beneath his eyes. I ordered him coffee and a plate of pastries and stayed quiet as he ate.

  He had changed a great deal in the years I had known him, I thought. There was less fat on his face, and when the light caught him a certain way, his cheekbones were like blades beneath his skin. It struck me for the first time that he might be ill, but I didn’t raise the topic. When Woolrich wanted to talk about it, he would.

  While he ate, I recalled the first time that I had met him, over the body of Jenny Ohrbach. She had been pretty once, a thirty-year-old woman who had kept her figure through regular exercise and a careful diet and who had, it emerged, lived a life of considerable luxury without any obvious means of support.

  I had stood over her in an Upper West Side apartment on a cold January night. Two large bay windows opened out on to a small balcony overlooking Seventy-ninth Street and the river, two blocks from Zabar’s deli on Broadway. It wasn’t our territory, but Walter Cole and I were there because the initial MO looked like it might have matched two aggravated burglaries we were investigating, one of which had led to the death of a young account executive, Deborah Moran.

  All of the cops in the apartment wore coats, some with mufflers dangling around their necks. The apartment was warm and nobody was in any great hurry to head back out into the cold, least of all Cole and I, despite the fact that this seemed to be a deliberate homicide rather than an aggravated burglary. Nothing in the apartment appeared to have been touched and a purse containing three credit cards and over seven hundred dollars in cash was found undisturbed in a drawer under the television set. Someone had brought coffee from Zabar’s and we sipped from the containers, our hands cupped around them, enjoying the unaccustomed feeling of warmth on our fingers.

  The coroner had almost finished his work and an ambulance team was standing by to remove the body when an untidy figure shambled into the apartment. He wore a long brown overcoat the color of beef gravy, and the sole of one of his shoes had come adrift from the upper. Through the gap, a red sock and an exposed big toe revealed themselves. His tan pants were as wrinkled as a two-day-old newspaper and his white shirt had given up the struggle to keep its natural tones, settling instead for the unhealthy yellow pallor of a jaundice victim. A fedora was jammed on his head. I hadn’t seen anyone wear a fedora at a crime scene since the last film noir revival at the Angelika.

  But it was the eyes that attracted the most attention. They were bright and amused and cynical, trailing lines like a jellyfish moving through water. Despite his ramshackle appearance, he was clean shaven and his hands were spotless as he took a pair of plastic gloves from his pocket and pulled them on.

  “Cold as a whore’s heart out there,” he remarked, squatting down and placing a finger gently beneath Jenny Ohrbach’s chin. “Cold as death.”

  I felt a figure brush my arm and turned to see Cole standing beside me.

  “Who the hell are you?” he asked.

  “I’m one of the good guys,” responded the figure. “Well, I’m FBI, so whatever that makes me in your eyes.” He flicked his ID at us. “Special Agent Woolrich.”

  He rose, sighed, and pulled the gloves from his hands, then thrust both gloves and hands deep into the pockets of his coat.

  “What brings you out on a night like this, Agent Wool-rich?” I asked. “Lose the keys to the Federal Building?”

  “Oh, the witty NYPD,” said Woolrich, with a half smile. “Lucky there’s an ambulance standing by in case my sides split.” He turned his head to one side as he took in the body again. “You know who she is?” he asked.

  “We know her name, but that’s it,” said a detective I didn’t recognize. I didn’t even know her name at that point. I knew only that she had been pretty once and now she was pretty no longer. She had been beaten around the face and head with a piece of hollow-centered coaxial cable, which had been dumped beside her body. The cream carpet around her head was stained a deep, dark red and blood had splashed on the walls and the expensive, and probably uncomfortable, white leather furniture.

  “She’s Tommy Logan’s woman,” said Woolrich.

  “The garbage collection guy,” I said.

  “The very same.”

  Tommy Logan’s company had clinched a number of valuable garbage collection contracts in the city over the previous two years. Tommy had also expanded into the window cleaning business. Tommy’s boys cleaned the windows in your building or you didn’t have any windows left to clean, and possibly no building either. Anyone with those kinds of contacts had to be connected.

  “Racketeering interested in Tommy?” It was Cole.

  “Lots of people interested in Tommy. Lot more than usual, if his girlfriend is lying dead on the carpet.”

  “You think maybe someone’s sending him a message?” I asked.

  Woolrich shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe someone should have sent him a message telling him to hire a decorator whose eyesight didn’t give out the year Elvis died.”

  He was right. Jenny Ohrbach’s apartment was so retro it should have
been wearing flares and a goatee. Not that it mattered to Jenny Ohrbach any more.

  No one ever found out who killed her. Tommy Logan seemed genuinely shocked when he was told that his girlfriend was dead, so shocked he even stopped worrying that his wife might find out about her. Maybe Tommy decided to be more generous to his business partners as a result of Jenny Ohrbach’s death, but if he did, their arrangement still didn’t last much longer. One year later, Tommy Logan was dead, his throat cut and his body dumped by the Borden Bridge in Queens.

  But Woolrich I saw more of. Our paths crossed on occasion; we went for a drink once or twice before I returned home and he went back to his empty apartment in Tribeca. He produced tickets to a Knicks game; he came to the house for dinner; he gave Jennifer an enormous stuffed elephant as a birthday present; he watched, but did not judge or interfere, as I drank myself away shot by shot.

  I have a memory of him at Jenny’s third birthday party, a cardboard clown’s hat jammed on his head and a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream in his hand. He looked embarrassed, sitting there in his crumpled suit surrounded by three-and four-year-olds and their adoring parents, but also strangely happy as he helped small children blow up balloons or drew quarters from behind their ears. He did farmyard impressions and taught them how to balance spoons on their noses. When he left, there was a sadness in his eyes. I think he was recalling other birthdays, when his child was the center of attention, before he lost his way.

  When Susan and Jennifer died, he followed me to the station and waited outside for four hours until they had finished questioning me. I couldn’t go back to the house, and after that first night when I found myself crying in a hospital lobby, I couldn’t stay with Walter Cole, not only because of his involvement in the investigation but because I did not want to be surrounded by a family, not then. Instead, I went to Woolrich’s small, neat apartment, the walls lined with books of poetry: Marvell, Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, Herbert, Jonson, and Ralegh, whose “Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage” he sometimes quoted. He gave me his bed. On the day of the funeral, he had stood behind me in the rain and let the water wash over him, the drops falling from the brim of his hat like tears.

 

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