The killing kind, p.3
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       The Killing Kind, p.3

           John Connolly
 

  “Thank you,” said Mercier. We watched as he left, Harrold behind him. Harrold gently closed the door, giving me one last pained look before he departed, then Mercier and I were alone.

  “I know a lot about you, Mr. Parker,” he began as he poured the coffee and offered me cream and sugar. He had an easy, unaffected manner, designed to put even the most fleeting of acquaintances at ease. It was so unaffected that he must have spent years perfecting it.

  “Likewise,” I replied.

  He frowned good-naturedly. “I don’t imagine you’re old enough to have ever voted for me.”

  “No, you retired before it became an issue.”

  “Did your grandfather vote for me?”

  My grandfather, Bob Warren, had been a Cumberland County sheriff’s deputy and had lived in Scarborough all his life. My mother and I had come to stay with him after my father died. In the end, he outlived his own wife and daughter, and I had buried him one autumn day after his great heart failed him at last.

  “I don’t believe he ever voted for anyone, Mr. Mercier,” I said. “My grandfather had a natural distrust of politicians.” The only politician for whom my grandfather ever had any regard was President Zachary Taylor, who never voted in an election and didn’t even vote for himself.

  Jack Mercier grinned his big white grin again. “He might have been right. Most of them have sold their souls ten times over before they’re even elected. Once it’s sold, you can never buy it back. You just have to hope that you got the best price for it.”

  “And are you in the business of buying souls, Mr. Mercier, or selling them?”

  The grin stayed fixed, but the eyes narrowed. “I take care of my own soul, Mr. Parker, and let other people do as they wish with theirs.”

  Our special moment was broken by the entrance of a woman into the room. She wore a deceptively casual outfit of black pants and a black cashmere sweater, and a thin gold necklace gleamed dully against the dark wool. She was about forty-five, give or take a year. Her hair was blond, fading to gray in places, and there was a hardness to her features that made her seem less beautiful than she probably thought she was.

  This was Mercier’s wife, Deborah, who had some kind of permanent residency in the local society pages. She was a Southern belle, from what I could recall, a graduate of the Madeira School for Girls in Virginia. The Madeira’s principal claim to fame, apart from producing eligible young women who always used the correct knife and never spat on the sidewalk, was that its former headmistress, Jean Harris, had shot dead her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, in 1980, after he left her for a younger woman. Dr. Tarnower was best known as the author of The Scarsdale Diet, so his death seemed to provide conclusive evidence that diets could be bad for your health. Jack Mercier had met his future wife at the Swan Ball in Nashville, the most lavish social occasion in the South, and had introduced himself to her by buying her a ’55 Coupe de Ville with his AmEx card at the postdinner auction. It was, as someone later commented, love at first swipe.

  Mrs. Mercier held a magazine in her hand and assumed a look of surprise, but the expression didn’t reach her eyes.

  “I’m sorry, Jack. I didn’t know you had company.” She was lying, and I could see in Mercier’s face that he knew she was lying, that we both knew. He tried to hide his annoyance behind the trademark smile but I could hear his teeth gritting. He rose, and I rose with him.

  “Mr. Parker, this is my wife Deborah.”

  Mrs. Mercier took one step toward me, then waited for me to cross the rest of the floor before extending her hand. It hung limply in my palm as I gripped it, and her eyes bored holes in my face while her teeth gnawed at my skull. Her hostility was so blatant it was almost funny.

  “I’m pleased to meet you,” she lied, before turning her glare on her husband. “I’ll talk to you later, Jack,” she said, and made it sound like a threat. She didn’t look back as she closed the door.

  The temperature in the room immediately rose a few degrees, and Mercier regained his composure. “My apologies, Mr. Parker. Tensions in the house are a little high. My daughter Samantha is to be married early next month.”

  “Really. Who’s the lucky man?” It seemed polite to ask.

  “Robert Ober. He’s the son of my attorney.”

  “At least your wife will get to buy a new hat.”

  “She’s buying a great deal more than a hat, Mr. Parker, and she is currently occupied by the arrangements for our guests. Warren and I may have to take to my yacht to escape the demands of our respective wives, although they are such excellent sailors themselves that I imagine they will insist upon keeping us company. Do you sail, Mr. Parker?”

  “With difficulty. I don’t have a yacht.”

  “Everybody should have a yacht,” remarked Mercier, his good humor returning in earnest.

  “Why, you’re practically a socialist, Mr. Mercier.”

  He laughed softly, then put his coffee cup down and arranged his features into a sincere expression. “I hope you’ll forgive me for prying into your background, but I wanted to find out about you before I requested your help,” he continued.

  I acknowledged his comments with a nod. “In your position, I’d probably do the same,” I said.

  He leaned forward and said gently: “I’m sorry about your family. It was a terrible thing that happened to them, and to you.”

  My wife, Susan, and my daughter, Jennifer, had been taken from me by a killer known as the Traveling Man while I was still a policeman in New York. He had killed a lot of other people too, until he was stopped. When I killed him, a part of me had died with him.

  Over two years had passed since then, and for much of that time the deaths of Susan and Jennifer had defined me. I had allowed that to be so until I realized that pain and hurt, guilt and regret, were tearing me apart. Now, slowly, I was getting my life back together in Maine, back in the place where I had spent my teens and part of my twenties, back in the house I had shared with my mother and my grandfather, and in which I now lived alone. I had a woman who cared for me, who made me feel that it was worth trying to rebuild my life with her beside me and that maybe the time to begin that process had now arrived.

  “I can’t imagine what such a thing must be like,” continued Mercier. “But I know someone who probably can, which is why I’ve asked you here today.”

  Outside, the rain had stopped and the clouds had parted. Behind Mercier’s head, the sun shone brightly through the window, bathing the desk and chair in its glow and replicating the shape of the glasswork on the carpet below. I watched as a bug crawled across the patch of bright light, its tiny feelers testing the air as it went.

  “His name is Curtis Peltier, Mr. Parker,” said Mercier. “He used to be my business partner, a long time ago, until he asked me to buy him out and followed his own path. Things didn’t work out so well for him; he made some bad investments, I’m afraid. Ten days ago his daughter was found dead in her car. Her name was Grace Peltier. You may have read about her. In fact, I understand you may have known her once upon a time.”

  I nodded. Yes, I thought, I knew Grace once upon a time, when we were both much younger and thought that we might, for an instant, even be in love. It was a fleeting thing, lasting no more than a couple of months after my high school graduation, one of any number of similar summer romances that curled up and died like a leaf as soon as autumn came. Grace was pretty and dark, with very blue eyes, a tiny mouth, and skin the color of honey. She was strong—a medal-winning swimmer—and formidably intelligent, which meant that despite her looks, a great many young men shied away from her. I wasn’t as smart as Grace but I was smart enough to appreciate something beautiful when it appeared before me. At least I thought I was. In the end, I didn’t appreciate it, or her, at all.

  I remembered Grace mostly because of one morning spent at Higgins Beach, not far from where I now sat with Jack Mercier. We stood beneath the shadow of the old guest house known as the Breakers, the wind tossing Grace’s hair and the
sea crashing before us. She had missed her period, she told me over the phone: five days late, and she was never late. As I drove down to Higgins Beach to meet her, my stomach felt like it was slowly being crushed in a vise. When a fleet of trucks passed by at the Oak Hill intersection, I briefly considered flooring the accelerator and ending it all. I knew then that whatever I felt for Grace Peltier, it wasn’t love. She must have seen it in my face that morning as we sat in silence listening to the sound of the sea. When her period arrived two days later, after an agonizing wait for both of us, she told me that she didn’t think we should see each other anymore, and I was happy to let her go. It wasn’t one of my finer moments, I thought, not by a long shot. Since then, we hadn’t stayed in touch. I had seen her once or twice, nodding to her in bars or restaurants, but we had never really spoken. Each time I saw her I was reminded of that meeting at Higgins Beach and of my own callow youth.

  I tried to recall what I had heard about her death. Grace, now a graduate student at Northeastern in Boston, had died from a single gunshot wound in a side road off U.S. 1, up by Ellsworth. Her body had been discovered slumped in the driver’s seat of her car, the gun still in her hand. Suicide: the ultimate form of self-defense. She had been Curtis Peltier’s only child. The story had merited more coverage than usual only because of Peltier’s former connections to Jack Mercier. I hadn’t attended the funeral.

  “According to the newspaper reports, the police aren’t looking for anyone in connection with her death, Mr. Mercier,” I said. “They seem to think Grace committed suicide.”

  He shook his head. “Curtis doesn’t believe that Grace’s wound was self-inflicted.”

  “It’s a common enough reaction,” I replied. “Nobody wants to accept that someone close might have taken his or her own life. Too much blame accrues to those left behind for it to be accommodated so easily.”

  Mercier stood, and his large frame blocked out the sunlight. I couldn’t see the bug anymore. I wondered how it had reacted when the light disappeared. I guessed that it had probably taken it in stride, which is one of the burdens of being a bug: you pretty much have to take everything in stride, until something bigger stamps on you or eats you and the matter becomes immaterial.

  “Grace was a strong, smart girl with her whole life ahead of her. She didn’t own a gun of any kind and the police don’t seem to have any idea where she might have acquired the one found in her hand.”

  “Assuming that she killed herself,” I added.

  “Assuming that, yes.”

  “Which you, in common with Mr. Peltier, don’t.”

  He sighed. “I agree with Curtis. Despite the views of the police, I think somebody killed Grace. I’d like you to look into this matter on his behalf.”

  “Did Curtis Peltier approach you about this, Mr. Mercier?”

  Jack Mercier’s gaze shifted. When he looked at me again, something had cloaked itself in the darkness of his pupils.

  “He came to visit me a few days ago. We discussed it, and he told me what he believed. He doesn’t have enough money to pay for a private investigator, Mr. Parker, but thankfully, I do. I don’t think Curtis will have any difficulty in talking this over with you, or allowing you to look into it further. I will be paying your bill, but officially you will be working for Curtis. I would ask you to keep my name out of this affair.”

  I finished my coffee and laid the cup down on the saucer. I didn’t speak until I had marshaled my thoughts a little.

  “Mr. Mercier, I didn’t mind coming out here but I don’t do that kind of work anymore.”

  Mercier’s brow furrowed. “But you are a private investigator?”

  “Yes, sir, I am, but I’ve made a decision to deal only with certain matters: white-collar crime, corporate intelligence. I don’t take on cases involving death or violence.”

  “Do you carry a gun?”

  “No. Loud noises scare me.”

  “But you used to carry a gun?”

  “That’s right, I used to. Now, if I want to disarm a white-collar criminal, I just take away his pen.”

  “As I told you, Mr. Parker, I know a great deal about you. Investigating fraud and petty theft doesn’t appear to be your style. In the past you have involved yourself in more . . . colorful matters.”

  “Those kinds of investigations cost me too much.”

  “I’ll cover any costs you may incur, and more than adequately.”

  “I don’t mean financial cost, Mr. Mercier.”

  He nodded to himself, as if he suddenly understood. “You’re talking moral, physical cost, maybe? I understand you were injured in the course of some of your work.”

  I didn’t reply. I’d been hurt, and in response I had acted violently, destroying a little of myself each time I did so, but that wasn’t the worst of it. It seemed to me that as soon as I became involved in such matters, they caused a fissure in my world. I saw things: lost things, dead things. It was as if my intervention drew them to me, those who had been wrenched painfully, violently from this life. Once I thought it was a product of my own incipient guilt, or an empathy I felt that passed beyond feeling and into hallucination.

  But now I believed that they really did know, and they really did come.

  Jack Mercier leaned against his desk, opened his drawer, and drew a black, leather-bound folder from within. He wrote for a few seconds, then tore the check from the folder.

  “This is a check for ten thousand dollars, Mr. Parker. All I want you to do is talk to Curtis. If you think that there’s nothing you can do for him, then the money is yours to keep and there’ll be no hard feelings between us. If you do agree to look into this matter, we can negotiate further remuneration.”

  I shook my head. “Once again, it’s not the money, Mr. Mercier—” I began.

  He raised a hand to stop me. “I know that. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

  “No offense taken.”

  “I have friends in the police force, in Scarborough and Portland and farther afield. Those friends tell me that you are a very fine investigator, with very particular talents. I want you to utilize those talents to find out what really happened to Grace, for my sake and for that of Curtis.”

  I noticed that he had placed himself above Grace’s father in his appeal and once again I was conscious of a disparity between what he was telling me and what he knew. I thought too of his wife’s unveiled hostility, my sense that she had known exactly who I was and why I was in her house, and that she bitterly resented my presence there. Mercier proffered the check and in his eyes I saw something that I couldn’t quite identify: grief maybe, or even guilt.

  “Please, Mr. Parker,” he said. “Talk to him. I mean, what harm can it do?”

  What harm can it do? Those words would come back to haunt me again and again in the days that followed. They came back to haunt Jack Mercier as well. I wonder if he thought of them in his final moments, as the shadows drew around him and those he loved were drowned in redness.

  Despite my misgivings I took the check. And in that instant, unbeknownst to us both, a circuit was completed, sending a charge through the world around and beneath us. Far away, something broke from its hiding place beneath the dead layers of the honeycomb. It tested the air, probing for the disturbance that had roused it, until it found the source.

  Then, with a lurch, it began to move.

  THE SEARCH FOR SANCTUARY:

  RELIGIOUS FERVOR IN THE STATE OF

  MAINE AND THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE

  AROOSTOOK BAPTISTS

  Extract from the postgraduate thesis of Grace

  Peltier, submitted posthumously in accordance

  with the requirements of the Masters Sociology

  Program, Northeastern University

  To understand the reasons for the formation and subsequent disintegration of the religious group known as the Aroostook Baptists, it is important to first understand the history of the state of Maine. To comprehend why four families of well-intentioned and not uni
ntelligent people should have followed an individual such as the Reverend Faulkner into the wilderness, never to be seen again, one must recognize that for almost three centuries men such as Faulkner have gathered followers to them in this state, often in the face of challenges from larger churches and more orthodox religious movements. It may be said, therefore, that there is something in the character of the state’s inhabitants, some streak of individualism dating back to pioneer times, that has led them to be attracted to preachers like the Reverend Faulkner.

  For much of its history, Maine was a frontier state. In fact, from the time when the first Jesuit missionaries arrived in the seventeenth century to the midpart of the twentieth century, religious groups regarded Maine as mission territory. It provided fertile, if not always profitable, ground for itinerant preachers, unorthodox religious movements, and even charlatans for the best part of three hundred years. The rural economy did not allow for the maintenance of permanent churches and clergymen, and religious observance was oftentimes a low priority for families who were undernourished, insufficiently clothed, and lacking proper shelter.

  In 1790, General Benjamin Lincoln observed that few of those in Maine had been properly baptized, and there were some who had never taken Communion. The Reverend John Murray of Boothbay wrote, in 1763, of the inhabitants’ “inveterate habits of vice and no remorse” and thanked God that he had found “one prayerful family, and a humble professor at the head of it.” It is interesting to note that the Reverend Faulkner was given to quoting this passage of Murray’s in the course of his own sermons to his congregations.

  Itinerant preachers ministered to those who lacked their own churches. Some were outstanding, frequently having trained at York or Harvard. Others were less praiseworthy. The Reverend Mr. Jotham Sewall of Chesterville, Maine, is reported to have preached 12,593 sermons in 413 settlements, mostly in Maine, between 1783 and 1849. By contrast, the Reverend Martin Schaeffer of Broad Bay, a Lutheran, comprehensively cheated his flock before eventually being run out of town.

 

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