Every dead thing, p.32
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       Every Dead Thing, p.32

           John Connolly
 

  “Pest control,” said Louis.

  The air seemed to crackle with tension, until Woolrich turned around and walked from the room. He stopped in the hall and gestured to me. “I need to talk to you. I’ll wait for you in the Café du Monde.”

  I watched him go, then looked at Louis. He raised an eyebrow. “Guess I’m more famous than I thought.”

  “Guess you are,” I said, and went after Woolrich.

  I caught up with him on the street but he said nothing until we were seated and he had a beignet in front of him. He tore off a piece, sprinkling powdered sugar on his suit, then took a long gulp of coffee, which half drained the cup and left a brown stain along its sides. “C’mon, Bird,” he said. “What are you trying to do here?” He sounded weary and disappointed. “That guy, I know his face. I know what he is.” He chewed another piece of beignet.

  I didn’t reply. We stared at each other until Woolrich looked away. He dusted sugar from his fingers and ordered another coffee. I had hardly touched mine.

  “Does the name Edward Byron mean anything to you?” he said eventually, when he realized that Louis was not going to be a topic of discussion.

  “It doesn’t ring any bells. Why?”

  “He was a janitor in Park Rise. That’s where Susan had Jennifer, right?”

  “Right.” Park Rise was a private hospital on Long Island. Susan’s father had insisted that we use it, arguing that its staff were among the best in the world. They were certainly among the best paid. The doctor who delivered Jennifer earned more in a month than I made in a year.

  “Where’s this leading?” I asked.

  “Byron was let go—quietly—following the mutilation of a corpse earlier this year. Someone performed an unauthorized autopsy on a female body. Her abdomen was opened and her ovaries and Fallopian tubes removed.”

  “No charges were pressed?”

  “The hospital authorities considered it, then decided against it. Surgical gloves with traces of the dead woman’s blood and tissue on them were found in a bag in Byron’s locker. He argued that someone was trying to frame him. The evidence wasn’t conclusive—theoretically, someone could have planted that stuff in his locker—but the hospital let him go anyway. No court case, no police investigation, nothing. The only reason we have any record of it is because the local cops were investigating the theft of drugs from the hospital around the same time, and Byron’s name was noted on the report. Byron was dismissed after the thefts began and they pretty much ceased, but he had an alibi each time there were found to be drugs missing.

  “That was the last anyone heard of Byron. We have his Social Security number, but he hasn’t claimed unemployment, paid tax, dealt with state government, or visited a hospital since he was dismissed. His credit cards haven’t been used since October nineteenth, ninety-six.”

  “What brings his name up now?”

  “Edward Byron is a native of Baton Rouge. His wife—his ex-wife, Stacey—still lives there.”

  “Have you spoken to her?”

  “We interviewed her yesterday. She says she hasn’t seen him since last April, that he owes her six months’ alimony. The last check was drawn on a bank in East Texas but his old lady thinks he may be living in the Baton Rouge area, or somewhere nearby. She says he always wanted to come back here, that he hated New York. We’ve also put out photos of him, taken from his employee record at Park Rise.”

  He handed me a blown-up picture of Byron. He was a handsome man, his features marred only by a slightly receding chin. His mouth and nose were thin, his eyes narrow and dark. He had dark brown hair, swept from left to right. He looked younger than thirty-five, his age when the picture was taken.

  “It’s the best lead we’ve got,” said Woolrich. “Maybe I’m telling you because I figure you have a right to know. But I’m telling you something else as well: you keep away from Mrs. Byron. We’ve told her not to talk to anyone in case the press get wind of it. Secondly, stay away from Joe Bones. His guy Ricky was caught on one of our taps swearing blue hell about some stunt you pulled today, but you won’t get away with it a second time.”

  He laid some money on the table. “Your little team back there got anything that might help us?”

  “Not yet. We figure a medical background, maybe a sexual pathology. If I get anything more, I’ll let you know. I’ve got a question for you, though. What drugs were taken from Park Rise?”

  He tilted his head to one side and twisted his mouth slightly, as if debating with himself whether or not to tell me.

  “Ketamine hydrochloride. It’s related to PCP.” I gave no indication that I already knew about the drug. The feds would tear Morphy a new asshole if they knew he had been feeding me details like that, although they must have already had their suspicions. Woolrich paused for a moment and then went on. “It was found in the bodies of Tante Marie Aguillard and her son. The killer used it as a form of anesthetic.”

  He spun his coffee cup on its saucer, waiting until it came to rest with the handle pointing in my direction.

  “Are you scared of this guy, Bird?” he asked quietly. “Because I sure am. You remember that conversation we had about serial killers, when I brought you to meet Tante Marie?”

  I nodded.

  “Back then, I thought I’d seen it all. These killers were abusers and rapists and dysfunctionals who had crossed some line, but they were so pathetic that they were still recognizably human. But this one…”

  He watched a family pass by in a carriage, the driver urging the horse on with the reins while he gave them his own history of Jackson Square. A child, a small, dark-haired boy, was seated at the edge of the family group. He watched us silently as they passed by, his chin resting on his bare forearm.

  “We were always afraid that one would come who was different from the others, who was motivated by something more than a twisted, frustrated sexuality or wretched sadism. We live in a culture of pain and death, Bird, and most of us go through life without ever really understanding that. Maybe it was only a matter of time before we produced someone who understood that better than we did, someone who saw the world as just one big altar on which to sacrifice humanity, someone who believed he had to make an example of us all.”

  “And do you believe that this is him?”

  “ ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ Isn’t that what the Bhagavadgita says? ‘I am become Death.’ Maybe that’s what he is: pure Death.”

  He moved toward the street. I followed him, then remembered my slip of paper from the previous night. “Woolrich, there is one more thing.” He looked testy as I gave him the references for the Book of Enoch.

  “What the fuck is the Book of Enoch?”

  “It’s part of the Apocrypha. I think he may have some knowledge of it.”

  Woolrich folded the paper and put it in the pocket of his pants.

  “Bird,” he said, and he almost smiled, “sometimes I’m torn between keeping you in touch with what’s happening and not telling you anything.” He grimaced, then sighed as if to indicate that this was something that just wasn’t worth arguing about. “Stay out of trouble, Bird, and tell your friends the same.” He walked away, to be swallowed up by the evening crowds.

  I knocked on Rachel’s door, but there was no reply. I knocked a second time, harder, and I heard some noises from inside the room. She answered the door with a towel wrapped around her body and her hair hidden by a second, smaller towel. Her face was red from the heat of the shower and her skin glowed.

  “Sorry,” I said. “I forgot that you’d be showering.”

  She smiled and waved me in.

  “Take a seat. I’ll get dressed and let you buy me dinner.” She took a pair of gray pants and a white cotton shirt from the bed, picked some matching white underwear from her case, and stepped back into the bathroom. She didn’t close the door fully behind her so that we could talk while she dressed.

  “Should I ask what that exchange was about?” she said.

 
; I walked to her balcony window and looked out on the street below.

  “What Woolrich said about Louis is true. It’s not as simple as that, maybe, but he has killed people in the past. Now, I’m not so sure. I don’t ask, and I’m not in a position to pass judgment on him. But I trust both Angel and Louis. I asked them to come because I know what they’re good at.”

  She came out of the bathroom buttoning her shirt, her damp hair hanging. She dried her hair with a travel dryer, then applied a little makeup. I had seen Susan do the same things a thousand times, but there was a strange intimacy in watching Rachel perform them in front of me. I felt something stir inside me, a tiny yet significant shift in my feelings toward her. She sat on the edge of the bed and slipped her bare feet into a pair of black slingbacks, her finger moving inside each one to ease the progress of her heel. As she leaned foward, moisture glistened on the small of her back. She caught me looking at her and smiled cautiously, as if afraid of misinterpreting what she had seen. “Shall we go?” she said.

  I held the door open for her as we left, her shirt brushing my hand with a sound like water sizzling on hot metal.

  We ate in Mr. B’s on Royal Street, the big mahogany room cool and dark. I had steak, tender and luscious, while Rachel ate blackened redfish, the spices causing her to gasp at the first bite. We talked of little things, of plays and films, of music and reading. It emerged that we had both attended the same performance of The Magic Flute at the Met in ’91, both of us alone. I watched her as she sipped her wine, the reflected light playing on her face and dancing in the darkness of her pupils like moonlight seen from a lakeshore.

  “So, you often follow strange men to distant lands?”

  She smiled. “I bet you’ve been waiting to use that line all your life.”

  “Maybe I use it all the time.”

  “Oh puh-lease. Next thing you’ll be wielding a club and asking the waiter to step outside.”

  “Okay, guilty as charged. It’s been a while.”

  I felt myself redden and caught something playful but uncertain in her glance—a kind of sadness, a fear of hurting and being hurt. Inside me, something twisted and stretched its claws, and I felt a little tear in my heart.

  “I’m sorry. I know almost nothing about you,” I said quietly.

  She reached out gently and brushed along the length of my left hand, from the wrist to the end of the little finger. She followed the curves of my fingers, delicately tracing the lines and whorls of my fingerprints, her touch soft as a leaf. At last, she let her hand rest on the table, the tips of her fingers resting on top of my own, and began to speak.

  She was born in Chilson, near the foothills of the Adirondacks. Her father was a lawyer, her mother taught kindergarten. She liked basketball and running, and her prom date got the mumps two days before the prom, so her best friend’s brother went with her instead and tried to feel her breast during “Only the Lonely.” She had one brother of her own, Curtis, ten years her elder. For five of his twenty-eight years, Curtis had been a cop. He was two weeks short of his twenty-ninth birthday when he died. “He was a detective with the State Police, newly promoted. He wasn’t even on duty the day he was killed.” She spoke without hesitation, not too slowly, not too quickly, as if she had gone over the story a thousand times, examining it for flaws, tracing its beginning, its resolution, cutting all extraneous detail from it until she was left with the gleaming core of her brother’s murder, the hollow heart of his absence.

  “It was a quarter after two, a Tuesday afternoon. Curtis was visiting some girl in Moriah—he always had two or three girls trailing him at any one time. He just broke their hearts. He was carrying a bunch of flowers, pink lilies bought in a store five doors from the bank. He heard some shouting and saw two people come running from the bank, both armed, both masked, a man and a woman. There was another man sitting in a car, waiting for them to come out.

  “Curtis was drawing his gun when they saw him. They both had sawed-offs and they didn’t hesitate. The man emptied both barrels into him and then, while he lay dying on the ground, the woman finished him off. She shot him in the face, and he was so handsome, so lovely.”

  She stopped talking and I knew that this was a story she had told only in her mind, that it was something not to be shared, but to be safeguarded. Sometimes, we need our pain. We need it to call our own.

  “When they caught them, they had three thousand dollars. That was all they got from the bank, all that my brother was worth to them. The woman had been released from an institution the week before. Someone decided that she no longer posed a threat to the community.”

  She lifted her glass and drained the last of her wine. I signaled for more and she remained silent as the waiter refilled her glass.

  “And here I am,” she said at last. “Now I try to understand, and sometimes I get close. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can stop things from happening to other people. Sometimes.”

  I found that her hand was now gripped tightly in mine, and I could not recall how that had happened. Holding her hand, I spoke for the first time in many years about leaving New York and the move to Maine with my mother.

  “Is she still alive?”

  I shook my head. “I got in trouble with a local big shot named Daddy Helms,” I said. “My grandfather and my mother agreed that I should go away to work for the summer, until things quieted down. A friend of his ran a store in Philly, so I worked there for a while, stocking shelves, cleaning up at night. I slept in a room above the store.

  “My mother began taking physiotherapy for a trapped nerve in her shoulder, except it turned out that she had been misdiagnosed. She had cancer. I think she knew, but she chose not to say anything. Maybe she thought that if she didn’t admit it to herself, she could fool her system into giving her more time. Instead, one of her lungs collapsed as she left the therapist’s office.

  “I came back two days later on a bus. I hadn’t seen her in two months and when I tried to find her in the hospital ward, I couldn’t. I had to check the names on the ends of the beds because she had changed so much. She lasted six weeks after that. Toward the end, she became lucid, even with the painkillers. It happens a lot, I believe. It can fool you into thinking they’re getting better. It’s like the cancer’s small joke. She was trying to draw a picture of the hospital the night before she died, so she would know where she was going when it was time to leave.”

  I sipped some water. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why all those things should have come back to me.”

  Rachel smiled and I felt her hand tighten again on mine.

  “And your grandfather?”

  “He died eight years ago. He left me his house in Maine, the one I’m trying to fix up.” I noticed that she didn’t ask me about my father. I guessed that she knew all there was to know.

  Later, we walked slowly back through the crowds, the music from the bars blending together into one blast of sound in which familiar tunes could sometimes be identified. When we came to the door of her room we held each other for a while, then kissed softly, her hand on my cheek, before we said good night.

  Despite Remarr and Joe Bones and my exchanges with Woolrich, I slept peacefully that night, my hand still holding the specter of her own.

  39

  I T WAS A COOL, clear morning and the sound of the St. Charles streetcar carried on the air as I ran. A wedding limousine passed me on its way to the cathedral, white ribbons rippling on its hood. I jogged west along North Rampart as far as Perdido, then back through the Quarter along Chartres. The heat was intense, like running with my face in a warm, damp towel. My lungs struggled to pull in the air and my system rebelled, struggling to reject it, but still I ran.

  I was used to training three or four times each week, alternating circuits for a month or so with a split bodybuilding workout. After a few days outside my training regimen I felt bloated and out of condition, as if my system was full of toxins. Given the choice between exercise and colon cleans
ers, I opted for exercise as the less uncomfortable option.

  Back at the Flaisance I showered and changed the dressing on my wounded shoulder; it still ached a little, but the wounds were closing. Finally, I left a batch of clothes at the local laundry, since I hadn’t figured on staying quite so long in New Orleans and my underwear selection was becoming pretty limited.

  Stacey Byron’s number was in the phone book—she hadn’t reverted to her maiden name, at least not as far as the phone company was concerned—so Angel and Louis volunteered to take a trip to Baton Rouge and see what they could find out from her, or about her. Woolrich wouldn’t be pleased, but if he wanted her left in peace then he shouldn’t have said anything at all.

  Rachel e-mailed details of the kind of illustrations she was seeking to two of her research students at Columbia and Father Eric Ward, a retired professor in Boston who had lectured at Loyola in New Orleans on Renaissance culture. Instead of hanging around waiting for a response, she decided to come with me to Metairie, where David Fontenot was due to be buried that morning.

  We were silent as we drove. The subject of our growing intimacy and what it might imply had not come up between us, but it seemed that we were both acutely aware of it. I could see something of it in Rachel’s eyes when she looked at me. I thought that she could probably see the same in mine.

  “So what else do you want to know about me?” she asked.

  “I guess I don’t know too much about your personal life.”

  “Apart from the fact that I’m beautiful and brilliant.”

  “Apart from that,” I admitted.

  “By personal, do you mean sexual?”

  “It’s a euphemism. I don’t want to seem pushy. If it makes you happier you can start with your age, since you didn’t tell me last night. The rest will seem easy by comparison.”

  She gave me a twisted grin and the finger. I chose to ignore the finger.

  “I’m thirty-three but I admit to thirty, if the lighting is right. I have a cat and a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, but no one to share it with currently. I do step aerobics three times a week and I like Chinese food, soul music, and cream ale. My last relationship ended six months ago and I think my hymen may be growing back.”

 

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