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The killing kind, p.5
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       The Killing Kind, p.5

           John Connolly
 

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  It was almost four o’clock when I returned to the Scarborough house, after depositing my check at the bank and completing various errands. I padded around in my bare feet as some Jim White played on my stereo. It was “Still Waters” and Jim was singing about how there were projects for the dead and projects for the living, but sometimes he got confused by that distinction. On the kitchen table lay Jack Mercier’s check, and once again that unease returned. There was something about the way he looked at me when he offered me the money in return for talking to Curtis Peltier. The more I thought about it, the more I believed that Mercier was paying for my services out of guilt.

  I wondered too what Curtis Peltier might have on Mercier that would cause him to hire an investigator to look into the death of a girl he barely knew. There were a lot of people who said that the collapse of their business partnership had been an acrimonious one, bringing to an end not only a long-established professional association but also more than a decade of friendship. If Peltier was looking for help, Jack Mercier seemed to me to be a curious choice.

  But I couldn’t refuse the job either, I thought, because I, too, felt a nagging sense of guilt over Grace Peltier, as if I somehow owed her at least the time it would take to talk to her father. Maybe it was the remains of what I had felt for her years before and the way I had reacted when she believed herself to be in trouble. True, I was young then, but she was younger still. I recalled her short dark hair, her questioning blue eyes, and even now, the smell of her, like freshly cut flowers.

  Sometimes, life is lived in retrospect. I sat at the kitchen table and looked at Jack Mercier’s check for a long time. Finally, still undecided, I folded it and placed it on the table beneath a vase of lilies I had bought on impulse as I was leaving the market. I cooked myself a dinner of chicken with chilis and ginger and watched TV while I ate, but I barely took in a fraction of what I was seeing. When I had finished, and the dishes were washed and dried, I called the number Jack Mercier had given to me the day before. A maid answered on the third ring, and Mercier was on the line seconds later.

  “It’s Charlie Parker, Mr. Mercier. I’ve decided. I’ll look into that matter.”

  I heard a sigh on the other end of the phone. It might have been relief. It might also have been resignation.

  “Thank you, Mr. Parker,” was all he said.

  Maybe Marvin Gross had done me a favor by calling me a sleazebag, I thought.

  Maybe.

  That night, as I lay in bed thinking of the small boy with the darkened lens and the blond-haired woman who had stood over him, the scent of the flowers in the kitchen seemed to fill the house, becoming almost oppressive. I smelled them on my pillow and on the sheets. When I rubbed my fingers together, I seemed to feel grains of pollen like salt on my skin.

  Yet when I awoke the next morning the flowers were already dead.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  The day of my first meeting with Curtis Peltier dawned clear and bright. I heard cars moving by my house on Spring Street, cutting from Oak Hill to Maine Mall Road, a brief oasis of calm between U.S. 1 and I-95. The nuthatch was back and the breeze created waves in the fir trees at the edge of my property, testing the resilience of the newly extended needles.

  My grandfather had refused to sell any of his land when the developers came to Scarborough looking for sites for new homes in the late seventies and early eighties, which meant that the house was still surrounded by forest until the trees ended at the interstate. Unfortunately, what remained of my semirural idyll was about to come to an end: the U.S. Postal Service was planning to build a huge mail processing center off nearby Mussey Road, on land including the Grondin Quarry and the Neilson Farm parcels. It would be nine acres in size, and over a hundred trucks a day would eventually be entering and leaving the site; in addition there would be air traffic from a proposed air freight facility. It was good for the town but bad for me. For the first time, I had begun to consider selling my grandfather’s house.

  I sat on my porch, sipping coffee and watching lapwings flit, and thought of the old man. He had been dead for almost six years now, and I missed his calm, his love of people, and his quiet concern for the vulnerable and the underprivileged. It had brought him into the law enforcement community and had just as surely forced him out of it again, when his empathy for the victims became too much for him to bear.

  A second check for $10,000 had been delivered to my house during the night, but despite my promise to Mercier I was still uneasy. I felt for Curtis Peltier, I truly did, but what he wanted I didn’t think I could give him; he wanted his daughter back, the way she used to be, so that he could hold her to him forever. His memory of her had been tainted by the manner of her death, and he wanted that stain removed.

  I thought too of the woman on Exchange.

  Who wears a summer dress on a cold day? When the answer came to me, I pushed it away as a thing unwanted.

  Who wears a summer dress on a cold day?

  Someone who doesn’t feel the cold.

  Someone who can’t feel the cold.

  I finished my coffee and caught up on some paperwork at my desk, but Curtis Peltier and his dead daughter kept intruding on my thoughts, along with the small boy and the blond woman. In the end, it all came to weights on a scale: my own inconvenience measured against Curtis Peltier’s pain.

  I picked up my car keys and drove into Portland.

  Peltier lived in a big brownstone on Danforth Street, close by the beautiful Italianate Victoria Mansion, which his home resembled in miniature. I guessed that he had bought it when times were good, and now it was probably all that he had left. This area of Portland, encompassing parts of Danforth, Pine, Congress, and Spring Streets, was where prosperous citizens made their homes in the nineteenth century. It was natural, I supposed, that Peltier should have gravitated toward it when he became a wealthy man.

  The house looked impressive from the outside, but the gardens were overgrown and the paint was peeling from the door and window frames. I had never been inside the house with Grace. From what I understood, her relationship with her father floundered during her teens and she kept her home life separate from all other aspects of her existence. Her father doted on her but she appeared reluctant to reciprocate, as if she found his affection for her almost suffocating. Grace was always extraordinarily strong willed, with a determination and inner strength that sometimes led her to behave in ways that were hurtful to those around her, even if she had not intended to cause them pain. When she decided to ostracize her father, then ostracized he became. Later I learned from mutual friends that Grace had gradually overcome her resentment and that the two had become much closer in the years before her death, but the reason for the earlier distance between them remained unclear.

  I rang the bell and heard it echo through the big house. A shape appeared at the frosted glass and an old man opened the door, his shoulders too small for his big red shirt and a pair of black suspenders holding his tan trousers up over his thin hips. There was a gap between his trousers and his waist. It made him look like a small, sad clown.

  “Mr. Peltier?” I asked.

  He nodded in reply. I showed him my ID. “My name is Charlie Parker. Jack Mercier said you might be expecting me.”

  Curtis Peltier’s face brightened a little and he stood aside to let me in, while tidying his hair and straightening his shirt collar with his free hand. The house smelled musty. There was a thin layer of dust over some of the furniture in the hall and in the dining room to the left. The furnishings looked good but not that good, as if the best items had already been sold and what remained was used only to fill up what would otherwise have been vacant space. I followed him into a small, bright kitchen, with old magazines scattered on the chairs, three watercolor landscapes on the walls, and a pot of coffee filling the air with the scent of French vanilla. The landscape in the paintings looked vaguely familiar; they seemed to consist of views of the same area, painted from three di
fferent angles in subdued hues of brown and red. Skeletal trees converged on an expanse of dark water, hills fading into the distance beneath cloudy skies. In the corner of each painting were the initials GP. I never knew that Grace had painted.

  There were paperbacks yellowing on the windowsill and an easy chair sat beside an open cast-iron fireplace packed with logs and paper so that it wouldn’t brood emptily when not in use. The old man filled two cups with coffee and produced a plate of cookies from a cupboard, then raised his hands from his sides and smiled apologetically.

  “You’ll have to forgive me, Mr. Parker,” he said, indicating his shirt and his faded pants, and the sandals on his stockinged feet. “I wasn’t expecting company so early in the day.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” I replied. “The cable guy once found me trying to kill a roach while wearing nothing but sneakers.”

  He smiled gratefully and sat. “Jack Mercier tell you about my little girl?” he asked, cutting straight to the chase. I watched his face while he said Mercier’s name and saw something flicker, like a candle flame suddenly exposed to a draft.

  I nodded. “I’m sorry.”

  “She didn’t kill herself, Mr. Parker. I don’t care what anybody says. She was with me the weekend before she died, and I have never seen her happier. She didn’t do drugs. She didn’t smoke. Hell, she didn’t even drink, at least nothing stronger than a Bud Light.” He sipped at his coffee, the thumb of his left hand worrying his forefinger in a constant, rhythmic movement. There was a white callus on his skin from the repeated contact.

  I took out my notebook and my pen and wrote while Peltier spoke. Grace’s mother had died when she was thirteen. After a succession of dead-end jobs, Grace had returned to college and had been preparing her postgraduate thesis on the history of certain religious movements in the state. She had recently returned to live with her father, traveling down to Boston to use library facilities when necessary.

  “You know who she might have been talking to?” I asked.

  “She took her notes with her, so I couldn’t say,” said Peltier. “She had an appointment in Waterville, though, a day or two before...”

  He trailed off.

  “With whom?” I prompted him gently.

  “Carter Paragon,” he replied. “That fella who runs the Fellowship.”

  The Fellowship was a pretty low-end operation, hosting shows on late-night cable and paying little old ladies a nickel a shot to stuff Bible pamphlets into envelopes. Paragon’s pitch involved claiming to cure minor ailments by asking viewers to touch the TV screen with their hands, or one hand at least, the other hand being occupied ringing the Fellowship’s toll-free number and pledging whatever they could afford for the greater glory of the Lord. The only thing Carter Paragon ever cured was an excess of cash in a bank balance.

  Unsurprisingly, Carter Paragon wasn’t his real name. He had been born Chester Quincy Deedes: that was the name on his birth certificate and his criminal record, a record that consisted mainly of minor credit card and insurance fraud, peripheral involvement in a pension scam, and a couple of DUIs. When hostile journalists brought this up, the newly monikered Carter Paragon admitted that he had been a sinner, that he hadn’t even been searching for God but God had found him anyway. It still wasn’t entirely clear why God had been looking for Chester Deedes in the first place, unless Chester had somehow managed to steal God’s wallet.

  Mostly the Fellowship was kind of a joke, but I’d heard rumors—unsubstantiated, mostly—that the Fellowship supported extremist religious and right-wing groups financially. Organizations believed to have received funding from the Fellowship had been linked to pickets and attacks on abortion clinics, AIDS help lines, family planning institutes, even synagogues. Very little had ever been proved: checks from the Fellowship had been deposited in the accounts of the American Coalition of Life Activists, an umbrella organization for some of the more extreme antiabortion groups, and Defenders of the Defenders of Life, a support group for convicted clinic bombers and their families. Phone records seized in the aftermath of various incidents of violence also revealed that assorted fascists, rednecks, and cracker militants had contacted the Fellowship on a regular basis.

  The Fellowship usually issued swift condemnations of any illegal actions by groups alleged to have received funding from it, but Paragon had still felt compelled to turn up on respectable news magazine programs on a couple of occasions uttering denials like St. Peter on a Thursday night, dressed in a suit that shimmered oilily, a small gold cross pinned discreetly to his lapel as he attempted to be charming, apologetic, and manipulative all at the same time. Trying to pin down Carter Paragon was like trying to nail smoke.

  Now it seemed that Grace Peltier had been due to meet with Paragon shortly before she died. I wondered if she had made the meeting. If so, Paragon might be worth talking to.

  “Do you have any notes she might have made for her thesis, any computer disks?” I continued.

  He shook his head. “Like I said, she took everything with her. She was planning to stay with a friend after she’d met with Paragon and do some work on her thesis there.”

  “You know who the friend was?”

  “Marcy Becker,” he said immediately. “She’s a history grad, friend of Grace’s from way back. Her family lives up in Bar Harbor. They run a motel there. Marcy’s been living with them for the last couple of years, helping them to run the place.”

  “Was she a good friend?”

  “Pretty good. Or I used to think she was.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean that she never made it to the funeral.” I felt that little lance of guilt again. “That’s kinda strange, don’t you think?”

  “I guess it is,” I said. “Did she have any other close friends who didn’t show for the service?”

  He thought for a moment. “There’s a girl called Ali Wynn, younger than Grace. She came up here a couple of times and they seemed to get on well together. Grace shared an apartment with her when she was in Boston, and she used to stay with her when she traveled down to study. She’s a student at Northeastern too, but works part-time in a fancy restaurant in Harvard, the ‘Hammer’ something.”

  “The Blue Hammer?”

  He nodded. “That’s the one.”

  It was on Holyoke Street, close by Harvard Square. I added the name to my notebook.

  “Did Grace own a gun?” I asked.

  “No.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Positive. She hated guns.”

  “Was she seeing anybody?”

  “Not that I know of.”

  He sipped his coffee and I found him watching me closely over the rim of the cup, as if my last question had caused a shift in his perception of me.

  “I recall you, you know,” he said softly.

  I felt myself flush red, and instantly I was more than a decade and a half younger, dropping Grace Peltier off outside this same house and then driving away, grateful that I would never have to look at her or hold her again. I wondered what Peltier knew about my time with his daughter and was surprised and embarrassed at my concern.

  “I told Jack Mercier to ask for you,” he continued. “You knew Grace. I thought maybe you might help us because of that.”

  “That was a long time ago,” I answered gently.

  “Maybe,” he said, “but it seems like only yesterday to me that she was born. Her doctor was the worst doctor in the world. He couldn’t deliver milk, but somehow, despite him, she managed to come wailing into the world. Everything since then, all of the little incidents that made up her life, seem to have occurred in the blink of an eye. You look at it like that and it wasn’t so long ago, Mr. Parker. For me, in one way, she was barely here at all. Will you look into this? Will you try to find out the truth of what happened to my daughter?”

  I sighed. I felt as if I was heading into deep waters just as I had begun to like the feel of the ground beneath my feet.

  “I’ll lo
ok into it,” I said at last. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do some work on it.”

  We spoke a little more of Grace and of her friends, and Peltier gave me copies of the phone records for the last couple of months, as well as Grace’s most recent bank and credit card statements, before he showed me to her bedroom. He left me alone in there. It was probably too soon for him to spend time in a room that still smelled of her, that still contained traces of her existence. I went through the drawers and closets, feeling awkward as my fingers lifted and then replaced items of clothing, the hangers in the closets chiming sadly as I patted down the jackets and coats they held. I found nothing except a shoe box containing the mementos of her romantic life: cards and letters from long-departed lovers, and ticket stubs from dates that had obviously meant something to her. There was nothing recent, and nothing of mine among them. I hadn’t expected that there would be. I checked through the books on the shelves and the medicines in the cabinet above the small sink in the corner of the room. There were no contraceptives that might have indicated a regular boyfriend and no prescription drugs that might have suggested she was suffering from depression or anxiety.

  When I returned to the kitchen there was a manila file of papers lying in front of Peltier on the table. He passed it across to me. When I opened it, the file contained all of the state police reports on the death of Grace Peltier, along with a copy of the death certificate and the ME’s report. There were also photographs of Grace’s body in the car, printed off a computer. The quality wasn’t so good, but it didn’t have to be. The wound on Grace’s head was clearly visible, and the blood on the window behind her was like the birth of a red star.

 
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