A song of shadows, p.35
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       A Song of Shadows, p.35

           John Connolly
 
A face stared back at him. It reminded Edmund of a piece of gray, rotting fruit that had decayed almost to white, an impression strengthened by the wrinkles around its mouth and at the edges of its empty eye sockets. Then it retreated, and he might have begun to doubt that he had ever seen it were it not for what happened next.

  A cigarette burned briefly in the yard next door. The house was empty and boarded up, the lawn a wasteland of trash and weeds, but now a man stood among them. In the glow of the cigarette, Edmund glimpsed his lank receding hair, and a white shirt buttoned to the neck.

  The Collector, the claimer of souls, had found them: the Collector, and the empty husks who walked with him.

  And Edmund was afraid.

  ‘Edmund,’ said Cambion, and when the giant looked to him he saw his own fear reflected in Cambion’s eyes, but also a depth of awareness that had not been present in them for many months, like the last flaring of a candle before its flame dies out forever. Cambion knew who – and what – was out there.

  ‘The phone,’ said Cambion. ‘I want you to dial a number for me, then put me on speaker.’

  A cheap, untraceable burner phone lay on the bedside locker. Only Earl Steiger had used it to call, but now Earl Steiger was dead. Cambion dredged up the number from memory. It never changed, and few had it.

  Louis answered on the second ring.

  ‘Who is this?’

  ‘A dead man,’ said Cambion. ‘Do you know me?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Louis. ‘I know you.’

  ‘The Collector has found me.’

  ‘Good,’ said Louis.

  Cambion coughed. It took Edmund a moment to realize that it was the ghost of a laugh.

  ‘I think you may have fed me to him.’

  ‘I tried, but you slipped the noose. Looks like he didn’t give up.’

  ‘He is persistent. It’s almost admirable.’

  Cambion’s mouth was drying up. He gestured for water. Edmund placed a straw between his lips and squeezed the liquid into his mouth from the plastic bottle.

  ‘Are you calling to say goodbye?’ asked Louis. ‘If so, consider it done.’

  ‘I’m calling to give you a gift,’ said Cambion.

  ‘You’ve got nothing I want.’

  ‘I have information.’

  There was silence on the other end of the phone, then Louis said, ‘Earl Steiger. He was one of yours.’

  ‘Very good. But he was more than one of mine: he was the last.’

  ‘And Charlie Parker buried him.’

  ‘No, God buried him.’

  ‘I didn’t think you believed in God.’

  ‘I feel His presence. I stand at the crossing of worlds. I await His judgment.’

  ‘You’re raving.’

  ‘No, I am offering a trade.’

  ‘To me?’

  ‘To God. I’m asking Him to decide what a soul is worth, what my soul is worth.’

  ‘I can tell you that in nickels and dimes.’

  ‘It’s not for you to determine.’

  ‘So you’re trying to save yourself? You’re deluded.’

  ‘No, I see with absolute clarity. Here it is, my parting gift to you: Earl Steiger was hired by a preacher named Werner to kill Ruth Winter and Lenny and Pegi Tedesco. It wasn’t the first time that Werner had used him. Werner’s nature is corrupt. He is a fanatic.’

  ‘Why did Werner hire him?’

  ‘I didn’t ask. I rarely do. Steiger told me a little of him. Werner is a neo-Nazi, but the ones he guards are the real thing.’

  ‘Did Werner kill the Wilde family?’

  ‘Yes, according to Steiger. He was also holding the boy, Oran, but he’s certainly dead by now. Werner was the one who tortured Perlman, before he went into the sea. He kills to protect.’

  ‘Do you have proof? Without proof—’

  Again came that hacked laugh.

  ‘Now you know where to look,’ said Cambion. ‘The proof you’ll have to find for yourself. Goodbye, Louis. You were right to decline my offer of employment. I think you would have turned on me in the end.’

  ‘This won’t save you,’ said Louis. ‘You think you’re going to avoid damnation with one phone call?’

  ‘Not damnation,’ said Cambion. ‘Just a form of it.’

  He nodded at Edmund, who killed the connection. The light was already fading from Cambion’s eyes, to be replaced by the pure terror of the final darkness. He stared at the closed drapes, as though he could pierce through to what waited for him beyond them. Edmund heard a scratching at the glass, as of nails picking at the window, and from the hall came the low creak of the doorknob being tried again. The woman screamed from somewhere upstairs. Perhaps they were already in the house.

  ‘There is still money in the bag,’ said Cambion. His gaze lit briefly on a brown satchel lying at the top of the bedroom closet. ‘Some jewels too, I think, and a handful of Swiss gold francs. Take it.’

  Gently, Edmund lifted a pillow from beneath Cambion’s head. The old man’s eyes turned to him, lost in his distorted flesh.

  ‘I am grateful to you,’ said Cambion. ‘For all that you have done.’

  Edmund placed the pillow over his master’s face, and held it there until his struggles ceased. Then he went to the closet and took down the satchel. He searched inside, and his fingers found the cloth bag of gold coins. He removed two, and laid them on Cambion’s eyes.

  The woman was waiting outside the bedroom. She was crouched in a corner, seemingly frozen in place, her face raised to the stairs. Edmund heard movement above his head. He walked past her to the front door, paused for a second, then unlocked it.

  The Collector stood on the doorstep. His cigarette was gone, and in its place he held a filleting knife. Edmund stared at him. He was still carrying the gun, but he dropped it at the sight of the Collector, and held up the empty hand. Shapes drifted past the woman in the hall, wraiths with pits for eyes, as the Hollow Men converged on Cambion.

  The Collector sniffed the air. He bared his yellow teeth as his face was transformed by rage.

  ‘I wanted him alive!’ he said.

  Edmund found the first words that he had spoken in years.

  ‘Too bad,’ he replied.

  And then the Collector was on him, the thin, curved blade thrusting into Edmund again and again in a blur of frustrated wrath, and the giant had never felt such pain.

  At last the Collector was sated. He took a step back, his right hand red to the wrist. He barely glanced at Edmund as he slumped to the floor and the last of the life gushed from him, but the Collector did find it in himself to impart some final words to the giant.

  ‘It was not enough to block your ears,’ he said. ‘It was not enough to do nothing. You should have known that we would come for you as well.’

  Edmund shuddered, and the flow of blood began to slow as he died. The Collector looked beyond him to where the woman was now curled into a ball in the hallway. The noises from above had ceased. She was alone in the house. Her eyes traveled to the blade in the Collector’s hand, but she did not plead or cry out. She was too far gone for that.

  The Collector wiped his knife clean on Edmund’s bright yellow jacket, now bibbed with scarlet, and restored it to the sheath on his belt. He picked up the satchel and examined its contents. He took one of the Swiss francs and dropped it into a pocket of his coat. It would suffice for his collection. He wanted nothing more from Cambion, or from anyone else in this place. He tossed the satchel to the woman, and left her.

  67

  Parker stood by the shoreline, near hypnotized by the waves, lost in their rhythm, the ascending moon his witness. Although he had long resided by Scarborough’s tidal marshes, and had grown to love their intricate silver tracery, he understood why those who lived their lives within sight and sound of the sea found themselves unsettled when they were away from the ocean, salt calling to salt.

  Despite his injuries, he had managed to walk farther than he had previously done, even though his bag of stone
s had disappeared and he had been forced to guess the distance. It was more progress, and progress was all that mattered, although the pain in his side said otherwise. A single white earphone was inserted in his right ear. The other hung loose over his shoulder.

  He did not hear the footsteps on the soft sand until they were almost upon him. He turned slowly, his hands outstretched, Christ waiting to be taken. Werner stood before him. He was not wearing his clerical garb, but instead was dressed in paint-flecked jeans and a baggy sweater, and his white sneakers were so old that they had turned to gray. Disposable clothes, Parker thought: Werner would burn them when he was done. The gun in his right hand shone a cold blue in the moonlight.

  ‘Pastor,’ said Parker.

  ‘You don’t seem surprised.’

  ‘I knew that someone would come, eventually. You, or another – it makes no difference. Now that it’s come down to it, I’m glad you came yourself. But then Steiger is dead, and I don’t think you have anyone left to call upon for help.’

  Werner looked puzzled.

  ‘I’ve been watching you for a while,’ said Werner. ‘You were like a statue by the sea.’

  ‘I hadn’t realized how much I loved it.’

  ‘The tide will soon be coming in,’ said Werner. ‘It’ll cleanse this place of all trace of you.’

  ‘Will you send me out with it, or did you learn from your mistake with Perlman?’

  ‘I’m not here to answer your questions, Mr Parker. That only happens in the movies. I’m here to kill you.’

  ‘That’s a pity,’ said Parker. ‘I had a lot of questions.’

  Werner raised the gun, and slowly, almost sadly, Parker closed his fists. He heard the shot at the same moment that the left side of Werner’s head spat a cloud of blood, bone, and tissue as the bullet exited. There was hardly any wind. The evening dimness apart, it had probably been an easy shot. Parker’s only regret was that Werner wouldn’t talk. He had seen it in his eyes. He knew from the moment it had begun.

  Parker reached beneath his sweater, killed the connection on his phone, and removed the earphone with its little mike attachment. Louis emerged from the dunes to the south. He had already disassembled the rifle, and was carrying the case in his right hand. Moments later, Angel – who had been watching Werner for most of the day – drove down from his perch above the bay.

  Parker stepped over Werner’s body, which was staining the sands red, and went to join the others. He didn’t want their footprints on the beach, even with the tide coming in. The police would have to be called, and his story had no hope of standing unless the only steps visible were Werner’s and his own.

  ‘I was hoping you could have shot to wound,’ said Parker to Louis.

  ‘Like the man said, that’s just for the movies.’

  ‘I don’t suppose it matters,’ said Parker. ‘He would have told us nothing.’

  ‘What did you want to know?’

  ‘What everyone wants to know: why.’

  ‘We could search his house,’ said Angel.

  ‘No. You don’t know what you’re looking for, and you’d need more time than I can give you. Just get going. Don’t drive through town. Head north, then cut southwest. Don’t stop. Just keep going.’

  ‘What will you tell them when you call it in?’ asked Louis.

  ‘Everything, except who fired the shot.’

  ‘Walsh will know.’

  ‘Did you write him a confession?’

  ‘Yeah, I signed my name on the sand, and left my card under a stone.’

  ‘Then let Walsh think what he wants.’

  He handed Angel the burner phone. Louis did the same with his. Their use was at an end.

  ‘You’re going to be real popular here,’ said Angel.

  ‘It’s okay,’ said Parker. ‘I was leaving anyway.’

  He made the call from the porch of the house, and returned to wait by Werner’s body for the first of the cars to arrive. The bullet had distorted Werner’s face. He was not the same man who had served soup and said prayers only a few nights earlier. Then again, he had never really been that man.

  Stynes arrived first, Preston close behind. The sea was already lapping at Werner’s feet. They stared down at his body, then Stynes told Parker to raise his hands while Preston searched him. He was not carrying a gun. He had always had faith in Louis and Angel. Preston went to get some plastic sheeting from the car, in order to preserve whatever evidence might be left on Werner’s body.

  ‘Tell me what happened,’ said Stynes, and Parker did, or most of it.

  ‘And you want me to believe that you don’t know who fired the shot?’ she asked, when he was done.

  ‘I’ve no idea.’

  ‘You set yourself up as bait, and then you trapped him.’

  ‘Have you secured his house?’ asked Parker, ignoring her.

  ‘Answer me.’

  ‘I’ve told you all I know. Now: have you secured Werner’s house?’

  ‘Yes, we have an officer out there. What kind of amateurs do you think we are?’

  ‘You’ll need to search his property with ground-penetrating radar.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘I think Oran Wilde is buried somewhere there.’

  ‘Did Werner tell you that?’

  ‘Call it an educated guess.’

  Stynes was visibly reddening.

  ‘You might not have pulled the trigger, but you had this man killed.’

  Parker leaned in closer to her.

  ‘Even if that were true, you knew what I was doing, and you let me stake myself out for whoever came.’

  Stynes produced a pair of cuffs and told Parker to turn around.

  ‘I’m placing you under arrest,’ she said. ‘You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you …’

  He looked out at the sea. He breathed in the salt air. His side still hurt, but he didn’t care. He wondered if his conversation with Baulman had been the final spur for Werner to move against him. Had all this been about Baulman? Ruth Winter, Bruno Perlman, Oran Wilde and his family, Lenny and Pegi Tedesco, all killed to protect one old war criminal who might well have died before he could be punished for his sins?

  Another car arrived, followed by an ambulance. Soon the detectives from the MSP would join them, and the feds, and then the real fun would start. He was in for a difficult couple of days. It didn’t matter.

  For he could smell the sea.

  68

  Parker was put in one of the holding cells at the back of the Boreas Police Department. They were clean, and mostly used for DUIs and the occasional out-of-control student during the summer months. He closed his eyes and tried to create a narrative that would satisfactorily explain all of the killings. He kept coming back to Lubsko. That had to be the connection, but Ruth Winter’s death didn’t fit comfortably into the chain of events. Even though she was linked to Lubsko through her mother, her murder still made no sense to him. He remained convinced that Perlman had told her something to bring Steiger down on her, but what?

  Gordon Walsh appeared after a couple of hours, trailed by Tyler and Welbecke, the two female detectives out of Belfast. Parker knew Tyler by sight, but not well. He was aware of Welbecke by reputation, mainly because she was one of the few people who could put the fear of God into Walsh.

  The Boreas PD had one interview room, which, as in many small departments – and some larger ones – doubled as storage space for boxes of paperwork and broken chairs that might yet be repaired and salvaged. The room didn’t have built-in recording facilities, so Walsh and Tyler both used their phones to record the interview. Tyler looked surprised when Parker waived his right to have counsel present, but Walsh didn’t. They didn’t have much on Parker: a man had been shot and killed with what appeared to be a high-powered rifle at Green Heron Bay, but unless the private detective was capable of bilocation he hadn’t pulled the trigger. On the other hand, they only had Parker’s word on what had been said in the m
inutes before Werner’s death. A Lutheran pastor, a respected member of his community, was dead, and Parker was the sole witness to his killing. Walsh decided that, for now, Parker didn’t need to know that Werner had been at Golden Hills when Bernhard Hummel, another suspected war criminal, had apparently choked to death.

  So Walsh said little, leaving most of the talking to Tyler and Welbecke. Walsh had been in this situation before with Parker. It was getting to be uncomfortably close to a habit, and he already knew what he was likely to hear: the truth, but not the whole truth, and maybe nothing like the truth. He sat back and let Tyler and Welbecke go through the motions while he tried to spot the lies and omissions.

  After listening to the back and forth for an hour, and watching Welbecke come close to an aneurysm on at least one occasion, Walsh arrived at two conclusions. The first was that Parker was lying when he said he hadn’t known for sure that it was Werner who would be coming for him, although he had his suspicions. Walsh couldn’t say why, exactly, but he was convinced that Parker had been forewarned.

  The second conclusion arose from Parker’s acknowledgement that he had put himself out there as bait by approaching both Werner and Baulmann, yet he also claimed not to have been armed when Werner finally confronted him on the beach. Parker wasn’t angling to be a martyr, and he wasn’t a fool. Werner had been fixed in a rifle sight from the moment he set foot on that beach, and Walsh believed that he knew exactly whose sight it was. Despite his denials, Parker knew too.

  ‘Why did you tell Sergeant Stynes to search Werner’s property for Oran Wilde’s body?’ Tyler asked.

  ‘A theory,’ he said.

  ‘Based on what?’

  Parker looked over her shoulder to where Walsh was seated.

  ‘Based on a belief that the killing of the Wilde family, and the subsequent hunt for their son, was a distraction, a means of drawing attention away from the drowning of Bruno Perlman, and from the town of Boreas.’

  Parker waited to see if Walsh would be drawn into saying something, but he remained silent.

  ‘And Werner gave no indication that this might be true before he was killed?’ said Tyler.

  ‘As I told you, he wasn’t in the mood to talk. But check his gun: I think you’ll find a match with the bullets used to kill the Wilde family.’

 

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