Every dead thing, p.44
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       Every Dead Thing, p.44

           John Connolly
 

  A figure in worn blue jeans and a white-and-red check shirt had disappeared into the bayou. The agents followed warily, their legs sinking almost to the knee at times in the muddy swamp water, dead tree trunks forcing them to deviate from a straight advance, before they reached firm ground. Using the trees as cover, they moved slowly, their guns at their shoulders, sighting as they went.

  There was the roar of a shotgun from ahead. Birds scattered from the trees and splinters shot out at head height from a huge cypress. An agent screamed in pain and stumbled into view, impaled in the cheek by the shards of wood. A second blast rang out and shattered the femur in his left leg. He collapsed on the dirt and leaves, his back arched in agony.

  Automatic fire raked the trees, shattering branches and blasting foliage. After four or five seconds of concentrated firing, the order went out to cease fire and the swamp was quiet once again. The agents and police advanced once more, moving quickly from tree to tree. A shout went up as blood was found by a willow, its broken branches white as bone.

  From behind came the sounds of dogs barking as the tracker, who had been kept in reserve three miles away, was brought in to assist. The dogs were allowed to sniff around Byron’s clothing and the area of the woodpile. Their handler, a thin, bearded man with his jeans tucked into muddy boots, let them smell the blood by the willow as soon as he caught up with the main party. Then, the dogs straining at their leashes, they moved on cautiously.

  But no more shots came at them from Edward Byron, because the lawmen were not the only ones hunting him in the swamp.

  While the hunt continued for Byron, Toussaint, two young deputies, and I were in the sheriff’s office in St. Martinville, where we continued our trawl through Miami’s dentists, using emergency numbers from answering machines where necessary.

  Rachel provided the only interruption, when she arrived with coffee and hot Danishes. She stood behind me and gently laid a hand on the back of my neck. I reached around and clasped her fingers, then pulled them forward and lightly kissed their tips.

  “I didn’t expect you to stay,” I said. I couldn’t see her face.

  “It’s almost at an end, isn’t it?” she asked quietly.

  “I think so. I feel it coming.”

  “Then I want to see it out. I want to be there at the end.”

  She stayed for a little longer, until her exhaustion became almost contagious. Then she returned to the motel to sleep.

  It took thirty-eight calls before the dental assistant at Erwin Holdman’s dental surgery at Brickell Avenue found the name of Lisa Stott on her records, but she declined even to confirm if Lisa Stott had attended during the last six months. Holdman was on the golf course and didn’t like being disturbed, the assistant said. Toussaint told her that he didn’t give a good goddamn what Holdman liked or didn’t like and she gave him a cell phone number.

  She was right. Holdman didn’t like being disturbed on the golf course, especially when he was about to make a birdie on the fifteenth. After some shouting, Toussaint requested Lisa Stott’s dental records. The dentist wanted to seek the permission of her mother and stepfather. Toussaint handed the phone to Dupree and Dupree told him that, for the present, that wasn’t possible, that they only wanted the records in order to eliminate the girl from their inquiries and it would be unwise to disturb the parents unnecessarily. When Holdman continued to refuse to cooperate, Dupree warned him that he would ensure that all his records were seized and his tax affairs subjected to microscopic examination.

  Holdman cooperated. The records were kept on computer, he said, along with copies of X rays and dental charts that had been scanned in. He would send them on as soon as he returned to his office. His dental assistant was new, he explained, and wouldn’t be able to send on the records electronically without his password. He would just finish his round…

  There was some more shouting and Holdman decided to suspend his golfing activities for that day. It would take him one hour, traffic permitting, to get back to his surgery. We sat back to wait.

  Byron had made it about a mile into the swamp. The cops were closing and his arm was bleeding badly. The bullet had shattered the elbow of his left arm and a steady current of pain was coursing through his body. He paused in a small clearing and reloaded the shotgun by tensing the stock against the ground and pumping awkwardly with his good hand. The barking was closer now. He would take the dogs as soon as they came in sight. Once they were gone, he would lose the lawmen in the swamp.

  It was probably only when he rose that he first became aware of the movement in front of him. The pack couldn’t have got around him already, he reasoned. The waters were deeper to the west. Without boats, they would not have been able to make it into the swamp from the road. Even if they had, he would have heard them coming. His senses had become attuned to the sounds of the swamp. Only the hallucinations threatened to undo him, but they came and went.

  Byron crooked the shotgun awkwardly beneath his right arm and moved forward, his eyes moving constantly. He advanced slowly toward the treeline, but the movement seemed to have stopped. Maybe he shook his head then to clear his sight, fearing the onset of the visions, but they didn’t come. Instead, death came for Edward Byron as the woods came alive around him and he was surrounded by dark figures. He loosed off one shot before the gun was wrenched from his grip and he felt a pain shoot across his chest as the blade opened his skin from shoulder to shoulder.

  The figures surrounded him—hard-faced men, one with an M16 slung over his shoulder, the others armed with knives and axes, all led by a huge man with reddish brown skin and dark hair streaked with gray. Byron fell to his knees as blows rained down on his back and arms and shoulders. Dazed with pain and exhaustion, he looked up in time to see the big man’s axe scything through the air above him.

  Then all was darkness.

  We were using Dupree’s office, where a new PC sat ready to receive the dental records Holdman was sending. I sat in a red vinyl chair that had been repaired so often with tape that it was like sitting on cracking ice. The chair squeaked as I shifted in it, my feet on the windowsill. Across from me was the couch on which I had earlier caught three hours of uncomfortable sleep.

  Toussaint had gone off to get coffee thirty minutes before. He still hadn’t come back. I was starting to get restless when I heard the sound of voices raised from the squad room beyond. I passed through the open door of Dupree’s office and into the squad room, with its rows of gray metal desks, its swivel chairs, and hat stands, its bulletin boards and coffee cups, its half-eaten bagels and donuts.

  Toussaint appeared, talking excitedly to a black detective in a blue suit and open-collar shirt. Behind him, Dupree was talking to a uniformed patrolman. Toussaint saw me, patted the black detective on the shoulder, and walked over to me.

  “Byron’s dead,” he said. “It was messy. The feds lost two men, couple more injured. Byron broke for the swamp. When they found him, someone had cut him up and split his skull with an axe. They’ve got the axe and a lot of boot prints.” He fingered his chin. “They think maybe Lionel Fontenot decided to finish things his way.”

  Dupree ushered us into his office, but didn’t close the door. He stood close to me and touched my arm gently.

  “It’s him. Things are still confused, but they’ve got sample jars matching the one in which your daughter’s”—he paused, then rephrased it—“the jar that you received. They’ve got a laptop computer, the remains of some kind of homemade speaker attachment, and scalpels with tissue remains, most of it found in a shed at the back of the property. I talked to Woolrich, briefly. He mentioned something about old medical texts. Said to tell you that you were right. They’re still searching for the faces of the victims, but that could take some time. They’re going to start digging around the house later today.”

  I wasn’t sure what I felt. There was relief, a sense of a weight being lifted and taken away, a sense that it had all come to a close. But there was also something more: I fel
t disappointment that I had not been there at the end. After all that I had done, after all the people who had died, both at my hands and the hands of others, the Traveling Man had eluded me right until the end.

  Dupree left and I sat down heavily in the chair, the sunlight filtering through the shades on the window. Toussaint sat on the edge of Dupree’s desk and watched me. I thought of Susan and Jennifer and of days spent in the park together. And I remembered the voice of Tante Marie Aguillard, and I hoped that she was now at peace.

  A low, two-note signal beeped from Dupree’s PC at regular intervals. Toussaint hauled himself from the desk and walked around to where he could see the screen of the PC. He tapped some keys and read what was on-screen.

  “It’s Holdman’s stuff coming through,” he said.

  I joined him at the screen and watched as Lisa Stott’s dental records appeared, detailed in words, then as a kind of two-dimensional map of her mouth with fillings and extractions marked, and then in the form of a mouth X ray.

  Toussaint called up the coroner’s X ray from a separate file and set the two images side by side.

  “They look the same,” he said.

  I nodded. I didn’t want to think of the implications if they were.

  Toussaint called up Huckstetter, told him what we had, and asked him to come over. Thirty minutes later, Dr. Emile Huckstetter was running through Holdman’s file, comparing it with his own notes and the X-ray images he had taken from the dead girl. At last, he pushed his glasses up on his forehead and pinched the corners of his eyes.

  “It’s her,” he said.

  Toussaint let out a long, jagged breath and shook his head in sorrow. It was the Traveling Man’s last jest, it seemed, the old jest. The dead girl was Lisa Stott, or, as she once was known, Lisa Woolrich, a young girl who had become an emotional casualty of her parents’ bitter divorce, who had been abandoned by a mother anxious to start a new life without the complication of an angry, hurt teenage daughter, and whose father was unable to provide her with the stability and support she needed.

  She was Woolrich’s daughter.

  49

  T HE VOICE on the telephone was heavy with tiredness and tension.

  “Woolrich, it’s Bird.” I spoke as I drove; a St. Martin’s deputy had retrieved the rented car from the Flaisance.

  “Hey.” There was no life to the word. “What have you heard?”

  “That Byron’s dead, some of your men too. I’m sorry.”

  “Yeah, it was a mess. They call you in New York?”

  “No.” I debated whether or not to tell him the truth and decided not to. “I missed the flight. I’m heading toward Lafayette.”

  “Lafayette? Shit, what you doin’ in Lafayette?”

  “Hanging around.” With Toussaint and Dupree, it had been decided that I should talk to Woolrich. Someone had to tell him that his daughter had been found. “Can you meet me?”

  “Shit, Bird, I’m on my last legs here.” Then, resignedly: “Sure, I’ll meet you. We can talk about what happened today. Give me an hour. I’ll meet you in the Jazzy Cajun, off the highway. Anyone will tell you where it is.” I could hear him coughing at the other end of the phone.

  “Your lady friend go home?”

  “No, she’s still here.”

  “That’s good,” he said. “It’s good to have someone with you at times like this.” Then he hung up.

  The Jazzy Cajun was a small dark bar annexed to a motel, with pool tables and a country music jukebox. Behind the bar, a woman restocked the beer while Willie Nelson played over the speakers.

  Woolrich arrived shortly after I began drinking my second coffee. He was carrying a canary yellow jacket and the armpits of his shirt were stained with sweat. The shirt itself was marked with dirt on the back and sleeves, and one elbow was torn. His tan trousers were dark with mud at the cuffs and hung over mud-encrusted, ankle-high boots. He ordered a bourbon and a coffee, then took a seat beside me near the door. We didn’t say anything for a time, until Woolrich drained half of his bourbon and began sipping at his coffee.

  “Listen, Bird,” he began. “I’m sorry for what went down between us this last week or so. We were both trying to bring this to an end our own way. Now that it’s done, well…” He shrugged and tipped his glass at me before draining it and signaling for another. There were black stains beneath his eyes and I could see the beginnings of a painful boil at the base of his neck. His lips were dry and cracked and he winced as the bourbon hit the inside of his mouth. He noticed my look. “Mouth ulcers,” he explained. “They’re a bitch.” He took another sip of coffee. “I guess you want to hear what happened.”

  I shook my head. I wanted to put off the moment, but not like that.

  “What are you going to do now?” I asked.

  “Sleep,” he said. “Then maybe take some time off, go down to Mexico and see if I can’t rescue Lisa from these goddamn religious freaks.”

  I felt a pain in my heart and stood suddenly. I wanted a drink as badly as I had ever wanted anything before in my life. Woolrich didn’t seem to notice my lack of composure, or even register that I was walking toward the men’s room. I could feel sweat on my forehead and my skin felt hypersensitive, as if I was about to come down with a fever.

  “She’s been asking after you, Birdman,” I heard him say, and I stopped dead.

  “What did you say?” I didn’t turn around.

  “She asks after you,” he repeated.

  I turned then. “When did you hear from her last?”

  He waved the glass. “Couple of months back, I suppose. Two or three.”

  “You sure?”

  He stopped and stared at me. I hung by a thread over a dark place and watched as something small and bright separated from the whole and disappeared into the blackness, never to be found again. The surroundings of the bar fell away and there was only Woolrich and me, alone, with nothing to distract either of us from the other’s words. There was no ground beneath my feet, no air above me. I heard a howling in my head as images and memories coursed through my mind.

  Woolrich standing on the porch, his finger on the cheek of Florence Aguillard.

  “I call this my metaphysical tie, my George Herbert tie.”

  A couplet from Ralegh, from “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage,” the poem from which Woolrich so loved to quote: “Blood must be my bodies balmer/No other balme will there be given.”

  The second phone call I had received in the Flaisance, the one during which the Traveling Man had allowed no questions, the one during which Woolrich was in attendance.

  “They have no vision. They have no larger view of what they’re doing. There’s no purpose to it.”

  Woolrich and his men seizing Rachel’s notes.

  “I’m torn between keeping you in touch and telling you nothing.”

  Cops throwing a bag of donuts he had touched into a trash can.

  “Are you fucking her, Bird?”

  You can’t bluff someone who isn’t paying attention.

  Adelaide Modine. “They can sniff each other out.”

  And a figure in a New York bar, fingering a Penguin volume of metaphysical verse and quoting verses from Donne.

  “Rack’t carcasses make ill Anatomies.”

  A metaphysical sensibility: that was what the Traveling Man had, what Rachel had tried to pinpoint only days before, what united the poets whose works had lined the shelves of Woolrich’s East Village apartment on the night he took me back there to sleep, on the night after he killed my wife and child.

  “Bird, you okay?” His pupils were tiny, like little black holes sucking the light from the room.

  I turned away. “Yeah, just a moment of weakness, that’s all. I’ll be back.”

  “Where are you going, Birdman?” There was doubt in his voice, and something else: a note of warning, of violence, and I wondered if my wife had heard it as she tried to escape, as he came after her, as he broke her nose against the wall.

  “I ha
ve to go to the john,” I said.

  I am still not certain why I turned away. Bile was rising in my throat, threatening to make me gag and vomit on the floor. A fierce, burning pain dug at my stomach and clawed at my heart. It was as if a veil had been pulled aside at the moment of my death, revealing only a cold, black emptiness beyond. I wanted to turn away. I wanted to turn away from it all, and when I returned, everything would be normal again. I would have a wife and a child who looked like her mother. I would have a small, peaceful home and a patch of lawn to tend and someone who would stand by me, even to the end.

  The toilet was dark and smelled of stale urine from the unflushed bowl, but the tap worked. I splashed cold water on my face, then reached into my jacket pocket for my phone.

  It wasn’t there. I had left it on the table with Woolrich. I wrenched the door open and moved around the bar, my right hand drawing my pistol, but Woolrich was already gone.

  I called Toussaint but he had left the office. Dupree had gone home. I convinced the switchboard operator to ring Dupree’s home number and to ask him to call me back. Five minutes later he did. His voice was bleary.

  “This had better be good,” he said.

  “Byron isn’t the killer,” I said.

  “What?” He was wide awake instantly.

  “He didn’t kill them,” I repeated. I was outside the bar, gun in hand, but there was no sign of Woolrich. I stopped two black women passing with a child between them, but they backed off as soon as they saw the gun. “Byron wasn’t the Traveling Man. Woolrich was. He’s running. I caught him out with a lie about his daughter. He said he had spoken to her two or three months back. You and I both know that’s not possible.”

  “You could have made a mistake.”

  “Dupree, listen to me. Woolrich set Byron up. He killed my wife and daughter. He killed Morphy and his wife, Tante Marie, Tee Jean, Lutice Fontenot, Tony Remarr, and he killed his own daughter too. He’s running, do you hear me? He’s running.”

 

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