Every dead thing, p.39
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       Every Dead Thing, p.39

           John Connolly
 

  “That, or he believes we’ve lost sight of it and need to be reminded, that it’s his role to tell us just how inconsequential we are,” I added. Rachel nodded her assent.

  “If what you say is true, then why was Lutice Fontenot dumped in a barrel?” It was Angel. He sat by the balcony, staring out on to the street below.

  “ ’Prentice work,” said Rachel. Louis cocked an eyebrow but stayed silent.

  “This Traveling Man believes he’s creating works of art: the care he takes in displaying the bodies, their relation to old medical texts, the links with mythology and artistic representations of the body all point in that direction. But even artists have to start somewhere. Poets, painters, sculptors all serve an apprenticeship of sorts, formal or otherwise. The work they create during their apprenticeships may go on to influence their later work, but it’s usually not for public display. It’s a chance to make mistakes without criticism, to see what you can and cannot achieve. Maybe that’s what Lutice Fontenot was to him: ’prentice work.”

  “But she died after Susan and Jennifer,” I added softly.

  “He took Susan and Jennifer because he wanted to, but the results were unsatisfactory. I think he used Lutice to practice again before he returned to the public arena,” she answered, not looking at me. “He took Tante Marie and her son for a combination of reasons, out of both desire and necessity, and this time he had the time he needed to achieve the effect for which he was searching. He then had to kill Remarr, either because of what he actually saw or the mere possibility that he might have seen something, but again he created a memento mori out of him. He’s practical, in his way: he’s not afraid to make a virtue out of necessity.”

  Angel looked unhappy with the thrust of Rachel’s words. “But what about the way most of us react to death?” he began. “It makes us want to live. It even makes us want to screw.”

  Rachel glanced at me, then returned to her notes.

  “I mean,” continued Angel, “what does this guy want us to do? Stop eating, stop loving, because he’s got a thing about death and he thinks the next world is going to be something better?”

  I picked up the illustration of the Pietà again and examined the detail of the bodies, the carefully labeled interiors, and the placid expressions on the faces of the woman and the man. The faces of the Traveling Man’s victims had looked nothing like this. They were contorted in their final agonies.

  “He doesn’t give a damn about the next world,” I said. “He’s only concerned with the damage he can do in this one.”

  I stood and joined Angel at the window. Beneath us, the dogs scampered and sniffed in the courtyard. I could smell cooking and beer and imagined that, beneath it all, I could smell the mass of humanity itself, passing us by.

  “Why hasn’t he come after us? Or you?” It was Angel. His words were directed at me, but it was Rachel who answered.

  “Because he wants us to understand,” she said. “Everything he’s done is an attempt to lead us to something. All of this is an effort to communicate, and we’re the audience. He doesn’t want to kill us.”

  “Yet,” said Louis softly.

  Rachel nodded once, her eyes locked on mine. “Yet,” she agreed quietly.

  I arranged to meet Rachel and the others later in Vaughan’s. Back in my room, I called Woolrich and left a message on his machine. He returned the call within five minutes and told me he’d meet me at the Napoleon House within the hour.

  He was as good as his word. Shortly before ten he appeared, dressed in off-white chinos and carrying a matching jacket over his arm, which he put on as soon as he entered the bar.

  “Is it chilly in here, or is it just the reception?” There was sleep caked at the corners of his eyes and he smelled sour and unwashed. He was no longer the assured figure I recalled from Jenny Orbach’s apartment, wresting control of the room from a group of vaguely hostile cops. Instead he looked older, more uncertain. Taking Rachel’s papers in the way he did was out of character for him; the old Woolrich would have taken them anyway, but he would have asked for them first.

  He ordered an Abita for himself and another mineral water for me.

  “You want to tell me why you seized materials from the hotel?”

  “Don’t look on it as a seizure, Bird. Consider it as borrowing.” He sipped at his beer and looked at himself in the mirror. He didn’t seem to like what he saw.

  “You could just have asked,” I said.

  “Would you have given it to me?”

  “No, but I’d have discussed what was there.”

  “I don’t think that Durand would have been too impressed with that. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been too impressed either.”

  “Durand called it? Why? You have your own profilers, your own agents on it. Why were you so sure that we could add something?”

  He spun around on his stool and leaned close to me, close enough that I could smell his breath. “Bird, I know you want this guy. I know you want him for what he did to Susan and Jennifer, to the old woman and her son, to Florence, to Lutice Fontenot, maybe even to that fuck Remarr. I’ve tried to keep you in touch with what’s been going down and you’ve walked all over this case like a fucking child in new boots. You’ve got an assassin staying in the room next door, God alone knows what his pal does, and your lady friend is collecting graphic medical imagery like box tops. You ain’t given me shit, so I did what I had to do. You think I’m holding back on you? With the shit you’re pulling, you’re lucky I don’t put you back on a plane to Noo Yawk.”

  “I need to know what you know,” I said. “What are you holding back about this guy?”

  We were almost head to head now. Then Woolrich grimaced and leaned back.

  “Holding back? Jesus, Bird, you’re unbelievable. Here’s something: Byron’s wife? You want to know what she majored in when she was at college? Art. Her thesis was on Renaissance art and depictions of the body. You think that might have included medical representations, that maybe that was where her ex got some of his ideas?”

  He took a deep breath and a long swig of beer. “You’re bait, Bird. You know it, and I know it. And I know something else too.” His voice was cold and hard. “I know you were at Metairie. There’s a guy in the morgue with a bullet hole in his head and the cops have the remains of a ten millimeter Smith & Wesson bullet that was dug out of the marble behind him. You want to tell me about that, Bird? You want to tell me if you were alone in Metairie when the killing started?”

  I didn’t reply.

  Then: “You screwing her, Bird?”

  I looked at him. There was no mirth in his eyes and he wasn’t smiling. Instead, there was hostility and distrust. Whatever I needed to know about Edward Byron and his ex-wife, I would have to find out myself. If I had hit him then, we would have hurt each other badly. I didn’t waste any more words on him and I didn’t look back as I left the bar.

  I took a cab to Bywater and stopped off right outside Vaughan’s Lounge on the corner of Dauphine and Lesseps. I paid the five-dollar cover at the door. Inside, Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers were lost in a rhapsody of New Orleans brass and there were plates of red beans scattered on the tables. Rachel and Angel were dancing around chairs and tables while Louis looked on with a long-suffering expression. As I approached, the tempo of the music slowed a little and Rachel made a grab for me. I moved with her for a while as she stroked my face, and I closed my eyes and let her. Then I sipped a soda and thought my own thoughts until Louis moved from his seat and sat beside me.

  “You didn’t have much to say back in Rachel’s room,” I said.

  He nodded. “It’s bullshit. All this stuff, the religion, the medical drawings, they’re all just trappings. And maybe he believes them and maybe he don’t. Sometimes it’s nothing to do with mortality, it’s to do with the beauty of the color of meat.”

  He took a sip of beer.

  “And this guy just likes red.”

  Back at the Flaisance, I lay beside Rachel
and listened to her breathing in the dark.

  “I’ve been thinking,” she said. “About our killer.”

  “And?”

  “I think the killer may not be male.”

  I raised myself up on my elbows and looked at her. I could see the whites of her eyes, wide and bright.

  “Why?”

  “I’m not sure, exactly. There just seems to be something almost feminine about the sensibility of whoever is committing these crimes, a… sensitivity to the interconnectedness of things, to their potential for symbolism. I don’t know. I guess I’m thinking out loud, but it’s not a sensibility typical of a modern male. Maybe “female” is wrong—I mean, the hallmarks, the cruelty, the capacity to overpower, all point to a male—but it’s as close as I can get, at least for now.”

  She shook her head and then was silent again.

  “Are we becoming a couple?” she asked at last.

  “I don’t know. Are we?”

  “You’re avoiding the question.”

  “No, not really. It’s not one that I’m used to answering, or that I ever thought that I’d have to answer again. If you’re asking if I want us to stay together, then the answer is yes, I do. It worries me a little, and I’m bringing in more baggage than the handlers at JFK, but I want to be with you.”

  She kissed me softly.

  “Why did you stop drinking?” she asked, adding: “Since we’re having this heart-to-heart.”

  I started at the question. “Because if I took one drink now, I’d wake up in Singapore with a beard a week later,” I replied.

  “It doesn’t answer the question.”

  “I hated myself and that made me hate others, even the people closest to me. I was drinking the night Susan and Jennifer were killed. I’d been drinking a lot, not just that night but other nights too. I drank because of a lot of things, because of the pressure of the job, because of my failings as a husband, as a father, and maybe other things as well, things from way back. If I hadn’t been a drunk, Susan and Jennifer might not have died. So I stopped. Too late, but I stopped.”

  She didn’t say anything else. She didn’t say, “It wasn’t your fault,” or, “You can’t blame yourself.” She knew better than that.

  I think I wanted to say more, to try to explain to her what it was like without alcohol, about how I was afraid that, without alcohol, each day would now leave me with nothing to look forward to. Each day would simply be another day without a drink. Sometimes, when I was at my lowest ebb, I wondered if my search for the Traveling Man was just a way to fill my days, a way to keep me from going off the rails.

  Later, as she slept, I lay on the bed, on top of the sheets, and thought about Lutice Fontenot and bodies turned into art, before I, too, faded into sleep.

  46

  I SLEPT BADLY that night, wound up by my conversation with Woolrich and troubled by dreams of dark water. The next morning, I had breakfast alone after tracking down what seemed to be the only copy of the New York Times in Orleans Parish, over at Riverside News, by the Jax Brewery. Later, I met Rachel at Café du Monde and we walked through the French Market, wandering between the stalls of T-shirts and CDs and cheap wallets, and on to the fresh produce at the Farmers’ Market. There were pecans like dark eyes, pale, shrunken heads of garlic, melons with dark red flesh that held the gaze like a wound. White-eyed fish lay packed in ice beside crawfish tails; headless shrimp rested by racks of “’gator on a stick” and murky tanks in which baby alligators lay on display. There were stalls loaded with eggplants and militones, sweet onions and elephant toe garlic, fresh Roma tomatoes and ripe avocadoes.

  Over a century before, this had been a two-block stretch of Gallatin Street on the riverfront docks between Barracks and Ursuline. Outside of maybe Shanghai and the Bowery, it was one of the toughest places in the world, a strip of brothels and lowlife gin mills where hard-faced men mixed with harder women and anyone without a weapon had taken a wrong turning somewhere that he was bound to regret.

  Gallatin is gone now, erased from the map, and instead tourists mix with Cajun fishermen from Lafayette and beyond, come to sell their wares surrounded by the thick, heady smell of the Mississippi. The city was like that, it seemed: streets disappeared; bars opened and, a century later, were gone; buildings were torn down or burned to the ground and others rose to take their place. There was change, but the spirit of the city remained the same. On this muggy summer morning, it seemed to brood beneath the clouds, feeling the people as a passing infection that it would cleanse from itself with rain.

  The door of my room was slightly ajar when we returned through the courtyard. I motioned Rachel against the wall and drew my Smith & Wesson, keeping to the sides of the wooden stairway so that the steps wouldn’t creak. The noise of Ricky’s Steyr sending bullets raking past my ear had stayed with me. “Joe Bones says hello.” I figured that if Joe Bones tried to say hello again, I could spare enough powder to blow him back to Hell.

  I listened at the door but no sounds came from inside. If it had been the maid in my room, she’d have been whistling and bumping, maybe listening to a blues station on her tinny portable radio. If there was a maid in my room now, she was either asleep or levitating.

  I hit the door hard with my shoulder and entered fast, my gun at arm’s length, scanning the room with the sight. It came to rest on the figure of Leon sitting in a chair by the balcony, flicking through a copy of GQ that Louis had passed on to me. Leon didn’t look like the kind of guy who bought much on GQ’s recommendation, unless the Q had made a big play for the JCPenney contract. Leon glanced at me with even less interest than he gave to GQ. His damaged eye glistened beneath its fold of skin like a crab peering out of a shell.

  “When you’re finished, there are hairs in the shower and the closet door sticks,” I said.

  “Room falls down around your ears, I could give a fuck,” he replied. That Leon, what a kidder.

  He threw the magazine on the floor and looked past me to Rachel, who had followed me into the room. His eyes didn’t register any interest there either. Maybe Leon was dead and no one had worked up the guts to tell him.

  “She’s with me,” I said. Leon looked like he could have keeled over from apathy.

  “Ten tonight, at the nine-sixty-six junction at Starhill. You et ton ami noir. Anyone else, Lionel cornhole you both with a shotgun.”

  He stood to leave. As I moved aside to let him pass, I made a pistol of my finger and thumb and fired it at him. There was a flash of steel in each of his hands and two barb-edged knives appeared inches from each of my eyes. I could see the tops of the spring loaders in his sleeves. That explained why Leon didn’t seem to feel the need to carry a gun.

  “Impressive,” I said, “but it’s only funny until someone loses an eye.” Leon’s dead right eye seemed to gaze into my soul, as if to rot it and turn it to dust, then he left. I couldn’t hear his footsteps as he walked down the gallery.

  “A friend of yours?” asked Rachel.

  I walked out of the room and looked down at the already empty courtyard. “If he is, I’m lonelier than I thought.”

  When Louis and Angel returned from a late breakfast, I went to their door and knocked. A couple of seconds went by before there was a response.

  “Yeah?” shouted Angel.

  “It’s Bird. You two decent?”

  “Jeez, I hope not. C’mon in.”

  Louis sat upright in bed, reading the Times-Picayune. Angel sat beside him outside the sheets, naked but for a towel across his lap.

  “The towel for my benefit?”

  “I’m afraid you might become confused about your sexuality.”

  “Might take away what little I have.”

  “Very witty for a man screwing a psychologist. Why don’t you just pay your eighty bucks an hour like everyone else?”

  Louis gave us both bored looks over the top of his newspaper. Maybe Leon and Louis were related way back.

  “Lionel Fontenot’s boy just paid me a visit,
” I said.

  “The beauty queen?” asked Louis.

  “None other.”

  “We on?”

  “Tonight at ten. Better get your stuff out of hock.”

  “I’ll send my boy.” He kicked Angel in the leg from beneath the sheets.

  “The ugly queen?”

  “None other,” said Louis.

  Angel continued to watch his game show. “It’s beneath my dignity to comment.”

  Louis returned to his paper. “You got a lot of dignity for a guy with a towel on his dick.”

  “It’s a big towel,” sniffed Angel.

  “Waste of a lot of good towel space, you ask me.”

  I left them to it. Back in my room, Rachel was standing by the wall, her arms folded and a fierce expression on her face.

  “What happens now?” she asked.

  “We go back to Joe Bones,” I said.

  “And Lionel Fontenot kills him,” she spat. “He’s no better than Joe Bones. You’re only siding with him out of expediency. What will happen when Fontenot kills him? Will things be any better?”

  I didn’t answer. I knew what would happen. There would be a brief disturbance in the drug trade, as Fontenot renegotiated existing deals or ended them entirely. Prices would go up and there would be some killing, as those who felt strong enough to challenge him for Joe Bones’s turf made their play. Lionel Fontenot would kill them; of that I had no doubt.

  Rachel was right. It was only expediency that made me side with Lionel. Joe Bones knew something about what had happened the night Tante Marie died, something that could bring me a step closer to the man who had killed my wife and child. If it took Lionel Fontenot’s guns to find out what that was, then I would side with the Fontenots.

  “And Louis will stand beside you,” said Rachel quietly. “My God, what have you become?”

 

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