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The killing kind, p.29
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       The Killing Kind, p.29

           John Connolly
 

  And the insects would feed, and the spiders would grow fat upon them.

  Beside me, Rachel murmured softly in her sleep, and I felt the warmth of her back against my stomach, the line of her spine beneath her pale skin like a stone path blanketed by new fallen snow. I raised myself gently to look at her face. Strands of red hair had caught between her lips, and carefully, I brushed them away. She smiled, her eyes still closed, and her fingers softly grazed my thigh. I kissed her gently behind the ear and she leaned her head into the pillow, exposing her neck to me as I followed its lines down to her shoulder and the small hollow at her throat. Her body arched as she pressed herself against me, and all other thoughts were lost in sunlight and birdsong.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  It was almost 1 P.M. when I left Rachel singing in the bathroom while I went out for bagels and milk, conscious still of the weight of the Smith & Wesson in its holster beneath my arm. It made me uneasy how quickly I had slipped back into the old routine of arming myself before I left the house, even for something as simple as a trip to the store.

  It was, by then, late in the morning, but today I hoped to find Marcy Becker. Circumstances had forced me to postpone the hunt for her, but more and more I was convinced that she was the key to what had taken place on the night Grace Peltier died, one more piece of a greater picture whose dimensions I was only now beginning to understand. Faulkner, or something of him, had survived. He, in collusion with others, had slaughtered the Aroostook Baptists and his own wife, then disappeared, eventually reemerging veiled by the organization known as the Fellowship. Paragon had merely been a front, a dupe. The real Fellowship, the substance behind the shadow, was Faulkner, and Pudd was his sword.

  I parked the car and took the bag of groceries from the front seat. I was still rearranging my thoughts, shifting possibilities, as I reached the kitchen door. I pushed it open and something white lifted from the floor and tumbled in the air, carried upward by the draft.

  It was a sugar wrapper.

  Rachel was standing at the entrance to the hallway, Pudd at her shoulder pushing her into the kitchen. She was gagged with a scarf, and her arms were secured at her back.

  Behind her, Pudd froze.

  I dropped the bag and reached for my gun. Simultaneously, Rachel twisted in Pudd’s grip and slammed her head back into his face, connecting with the bridge of his nose. He staggered backward, swiping at Rachel with the back of his hand. My fingers were already brushing the grip of the Smith & Wesson when something struck me hard on the side of the head and I went down, bright white pain erupting in my brain. I felt hands at my side and then my gun was gone and red droplets were exploding like sunbursts in the spilled milk. I tried to get up, but my hands slipped on the wet floor and my legs felt heavy and awkward. I raised my face to see Pudd’s fist raining down blows on Rachel’s head as she sank to the floor. There was blood on his face and palm. Then a second impact connected with my head, followed by a third, and I didn’t feel anything else for what seemed like a very long time.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  I came to in slow, arduous steps, as if I were struggling through deep red water. I was vaguely conscious of Rachel sitting on a kitchen chair by the table, still wearing her white cotton robe. Her teeth were visible where the scarf had been pulled tightly into her open mouth, and her hands were tied behind her back. There was bruising to her cheek and left eye, and blood on her forehead. Some of it had run down to stain the gag. She looked at me wide-eyed and her eyes flicked frantically to my right, but when I tried to move my head I was struck again and everything went black.

  I drifted in and out like that for a while. My arms had been tied separately, each wrist bound to one of the struts of the chair by what felt like cable ties. They bit into my skin when I tried to move. My head ached badly, and there was blood in my eyes. Through the mists I heard a voice say:

  “So this is the man.”

  It was an old man’s voice, faded and scratched like a recording heard through an old radio. I tried to lift my head and saw something move in the shadows in the hallway of the house: a slightly hunched figure, wrapped in black. Another, taller shape moved beside it, and I thought that it might be a woman.

  “I think that perhaps you should leave now,” said a male voice. I recognized the careful, composed rhythms of Mr. Pudd’s speech.

  “I would prefer to stay,” came the reply as the voice drew closer to me. “You know how I like to watch you work.”

  I felt fingers on my chin as the old man spoke, and smelled salt water and leather. The stench of internal decay was on his breath. I made an effort to open my eyes fully but the room was spinning and I was conscious only of his presence, of the way his fingers clutched at my flesh, testing the bone structure beneath my skin. His hand moved to my shoulder, then my arms and my fingers.

  “No,” said Pudd. “It was unwise of you to come at all, on this of all days. You must leave.”

  I heard a weary exhalation of air. “He sees them, you know,” said the old voice. “I can feel it from him. He is an unusual man, a tormented man.”

  “I will put him out of his misery.”

  “And ours,” said the voice. “He has strong bones. Don’t damage his fingers or his arms. I want them.”

  “And the woman?”

  “Do what you have to do, but a promise to spare her might encourage her lover to be more cooperative.”

  “But if she dies . . . ?”

  “She has beautiful skin. I can use it.”

  “How much of it?” asked Pudd.

  There was a pause.

  “All of it,” said the old man.

  I heard footsteps on the kitchen floor beside me. The red film over my eyes was fading now as I blinked away the blood. I saw the strange, nameless woman with the scarred neck staring down at me with narrow, hateful eyes. She touched my cheek with her fingers, and I shuddered.

  “Leave now,” said Pudd. She stayed beside me for another moment or two, then moved away almost regretfully. I saw her blend into the shadows, and then two figures moved through the half-open front door and into the yard. I tried to keep them in sight until a slap to my cheek brought me back and someone else moved into my line of vision, a woman dressed in a blue sweater and pants, her hair loose on her shoulders.

  “Ms. Torrance,” I said, my mouth dry. “I hope you got a reference from Paragon before he died.”

  She hit me on the back of my head. It wasn’t a hard slap. It didn’t have to be. She caught me right on the spot where the earlier blows had landed. The pain was almost visible to me, like lightning flashes in the night sky, and I grew nauseous with pain. I let my head hang down, my chin on my chest, and tried to keep myself from retching. From the front of the house came the sound of a car pulling away, and then there was movement ahead of me and a pair of brown shoes appeared at the kitchen door. I followed the shoes up to the cuffs of the brown pants, then the slightly stretched waistband, the brown check jacket, and finally, the dark, hooded eyes of Mr. Pudd.

  He looked considerably worse than when we had last met. The remains of his right ear were covered in gauze, and his nose had swollen where Rachel’s head had impacted upon it. There were still traces of blood around his nostrils.

  “Welcome back, sir,” he said, smiling. “Welcome indeed.”

  He gestured to Rachel with one gloved hand. “We had to make our own entertainment while you were gone, but I don’t believe there was much that your whore could tell us. On the other hand, Mr. Parker, I believe you may know considerably more.”

  He stepped forward so that he stood over Rachel. With one movement, he tore the sleeve of her robe, exposing the whiteness of her arm, speckled here and there with small brown freckles. Ms. Torrance, I noticed, now stood in front of me and slightly to my right, her own Beretta leveled on me while my Smith & Wesson lay in its holster on the table. The remains of my cell phone were scattered across the floor and I saw that the wire to the telephone in the kitchen had been pulled out.
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  “As you know, Mr. Parker, we are looking for something,” began Pudd, “something that was taken from us by Ms. Peltier. That item is still missing. So too, we now believe, is a passenger who may have been in the car with the late Ms. Peltier shortly before she died. We think that individual may have the item we are looking for. I would like you to confirm who that person is so that we can retrieve it. I would also like you to tell us all that passed between you and the late Mr. Al Z, everything of which you and Mr. Mercier spoke two nights ago, and all that you know of the man who killed Mr. Paragon.”

  I didn’t reply. Pudd remained silent for about thirty seconds, then sighed. “I know that you are a very stubborn man. I think you might even be willing to die rather than give me what I want. It’s very laudable, I admit, to give up one’s life to save another. It is, in a sense, what brings us to this point. After all, we are all the fruit of one man’s sacrifice, are we not? And you will die, Mr. Parker, regardless of what you tell me. Your life is about to end.”

  He leaned over Rachel’s shoulder and grasped her chin in his hand, forcing her to look at me. “But are you willing to sacrifice the life of another to protect Grace Peltier’s friend, or to fuel your strange crusade? That is the real test: how many lives is this person worth? Have you even met the individual in question? Can someone whom you do not know be worth more to you than the life of this woman? Do you have the right to give up Ms. Wolfe here to safeguard your own principles?”

  He released his grip on Rachel’s jaw and shrugged. “These are difficult questions, Mr. Parker, but rest assured we will shortly have answers to them.” From the floor he lifted a large plastic case, its surface covered in tiny perforations. He placed it on the table beside his own Beretta, then opened it so that it faced me. Inside lay five plastic containers. Three of them were boxes of four or five inches in length, while the other two were simply small containers for herbs and spices adapted to his purpose.

  He withdrew the two spice jars, the reusable kind with a perforated lid. In each of them, something small and brown tested the glass with a tiny raised limb. Pudd placed one of the jars on the table, then walked over to me with the other, holding it gently between his thumb and forefinger so that my view of its contents was unobscured.

  “Do you recognize this?” he asked. Inside the jar, the light brown recluse spider raised itself up against the glass, revealing its abdomen before it slid back down, its stringy legs probing at the air. On its cephalothorax was the small, dark brown, violin-shaped mark that gave the spider its common name of fiddleback.

  “It’s a recluse, Mr. Parker, Loxosceles reclusa. I’ve been telling it what you did to its brothers and sisters in your mailbox. You burned them alive. I don’t consider that to be very sporting.”

  He held the jar an inch from my eye, then shook it gently. Inside, the spider grew increasingly agitated, tearing around the confined space, its legs constantly moving.

  “Some people consider recluses to be nasty, verminous arachnids, but I rather admire them. I find them to be remarkably aggressive. I sometimes feed them black widows, and you would be surprised at how quickly a widow can become a tasty snack for a family of recluses.

  “But the most interesting aspect of all, Mr. Parker, is the venom.” His eyes glowed brightly beneath their hoods and I caught a trace of a faint smell rising from him, an unpleasant, chemical scent, as though his body had begun to produce its own toxin as his excitement grew. “The venom it uses to attack humans is not the same as that which it uses to paralyze and kill its insect prey. There is an extra component, an additional toxin, in the venom it utilizes against us. It is as if this little spider is aware of us, has always been aware of us, and has found a way to hurt us. A most unpleasant way.”

  He moved away until he was, once again, beside Rachel. He brushed the jar against her cheek. She shrank from the touch, and I saw that she had begun to tremble. Tears ran from her eyes. Mr. Pudd’s nostrils flared, as if he could smell her fear and disgust.

  But then she looked at me, and shook her head gently once.

  “The venom causes necrosis. It makes the white blood cells turn against their own body. The skin swells, then starts to rot, and the body is unable to repair the damage. Some people suffer greatly. Some even die. I have heard of one man who died within an hour of being bitten. Amazing, don’t you think, that all of this suffering could be caused by such a tiny spider? The late Mr. Shine was given an intimate revelation of its workings, as I’m sure he told you before he died.

  “But then, some people are not affected at all. The venom simply has no effect on them. And that’s what makes this little test so interesting. Unless you tell me what I need to know, I am going to apply the recluse to the skin of your whore. She probably won’t even feel its bite. Then we will wait. The antidote to recluse venom must be administered within half an hour for it to be effective. If you are unhelpful, then I am afraid we will be here for much longer than that. We will start with her arms, then move on to her face and her breasts. If that proves unsuccessful in moving you, we may have to progress to some of my other specimens. I have a black widow in my case, and a sand spider from South Africa of which I am particularly fond. She will be able to taste it in her mouth as she dies.”

  He raised the little jar.

  “For the last time, Mr. Parker, who was the second passenger, and where is that person now?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t figured that out yet.”

  “I don’t believe you.” Slowly, Pudd began to unscrew the top of the jar.

  I twisted in my chair as he held the jar close to Rachel once again. Pudd took the movement as a sign of my discomfort, and his excitement grew. But he was wrong. These were old chairs. They had been in this house for the best part of fifty years. They had been broken, then repaired and broken again. Using the pressure of my shoulders and by twisting my hand, I could feel the upper part of the back of my chair loosening. I pushed up with my shoulders and heard a faint crack. The back of the chair rose about a quarter of an inch as the frame started to come apart.

  “I mean it,” I said. “I don’t know.”

  I gripped harder with my right hand and felt one of the struts turn in its hole. It was almost free. Beside me, Ms. Torrance’s attention was focused on Rachel and the spider. Pudd flipped off the lid and tipped the jar over, trapping the recluse on the skin of Rachel’s arm. I saw the spider respond as he shifted the jar slightly, provoking it into a bite. Rachel’s eyes grew large and she gave a muffled cry from behind the gag. Beside her, Pudd opened his mouth and emitted a small gasp as the spider bit, then stared at me with absolute, perverse joy.

  “Bad news, Mr. Parker!” he cried, as the strut came free in my hand and I spun my wrist, pushing the spear of wood with all the force I could muster into the left side of the woman. I felt brief resistance before it penetrated the skin between her third and fourth ribs and shot through. She screamed as I rose, knocking her gun from her hand and sending it sliding across the kitchen floor. My forehead struck her face and she lurched back against the sink. Simultaneously, Rachel shifted her weight in the chair, causing it to topple backward and forcing Pudd away from the table. With the chair still dangling from my left hand, I reached for my gun and fired two shots at Pudd’s body. Splinters flew from the door frame as he dived into the hallway.

  Beside me, the woman pawed at my legs. I kicked out at her and felt my foot connect. The pawing stopped. I shrugged the remains of the chair from my arm and reached the hallway just in time to see the front door slam open and Pudd’s long brown frame disappear to the right. I sprang down the hall, risked a quick glance from the doorway, and pulled my head in quickly as the shots came. He had a second gun. I took a breath, then rolled out onto the porch and started firing, the Smith & Wesson bucking in my right hand. Pudd disappeared into the trees and I followed, increasing my pace as I heard the car start. Seconds later, the Cirrus burst from cover. I kept firing as it shot down the drive and
onto Mussey Road, the rear window shattering and one of its back lights exploding as the gun locked empty. I let him go, then ran back to the house and untied Rachel. She immediately retreated into the hall, curling in on herself and rubbing again and again at the spot where the recluse had bitten her.

  The woman was crawling to the back door, the strut still buried in her side and a trail of black blood following her across the floor. Her nose was broken and one eye had been closed by the kick to her head. She looked blearily at me as I leaned over her, her vision and her life already fading.

  “Where has he gone?” I hissed.

  She shook her head and spat blood in my face. I gripped the strut and twisted. Her teeth gritted in agony.

  “Where has he gone?” I repeated. Ms. Torrance beat at the ground with one hand. Her mouth opened to its fullest extent as she twisted and writhed then went into spasm. I released my hold on the wood and stepped back as her eyes rolled back into her head and she died. I patted her down but there was no ID on her body, no indication of where Pudd might be based. I kicked once at her legs in impotent rage, then reloaded my gun with a spare mag before walking Rachel to my car.

  22

  I CALLED ANGEL AND LOUIS from the Maine Medical Center, but there was no reply from their room at the inn. I then placed a call to the Scarborough PD. I told them that a couple had broken into my house, assaulted my girlfriend, and one of them was now lying dead on my kitchen floor. I also gave them a description of the Cirrus Mr. Pudd had driven away from the house, complete with smashed rear windshield and busted back light.

  The Scarborough PD was equipped with QED, or computer-enabled dispatch, which meant that the nearest patrol car would be immediately assigned to the house. They would also alert neighboring departments and the state police in an effort to find Pudd before he ditched the car.

  At Maine Medical they dosed Rachel with antivenin after she had replied to a barrage of questions to which I was not privy, then put her on a gurney in a curtained-off section to rest up. By then Angel and Louis had got my message, and Angel was now seated beside her, talking to her gently, while Louis waited outside in the car. There were still people with questions to ask about the events in Dark Hollow the previous winter, and Louis was considerably more conspicuous than Angel.

 
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