The killing kind, p.9
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       The Killing Kind, p.9

           John Connolly
 

  “Mr. Parker?” he asked.

  “Trooper Voisine?” I extended a hand and he took it.

  He was about my height and age, with receding hair, an “aw shucks” smile, and a small triangular scar on his forehead. He caught me looking at it and reached up to rub it with his right hand.

  “Lady hit me on the head with a high-heeled shoe after I pulled her over for speeding,” he explained. “I asked her to step from the car, she stumbled, and when I reached over to help her I caught her heel in my forehead. Sometimes it just don’t pay to be polite.”

  “Like they say,” I said, “shoot the women first.”

  His smile faltered a little, then regained some of its brightness.

  “You from away?” he asked.

  “From away.” I hadn’t heard that phrase in quite some time. Around these parts, “from away” meant any place more than a half-hour’s drive from wherever you happened to be standing at the time. It also meant anyone who couldn’t trace a local family connection back at least a hundred years. There were people whose grandparents were buried in the nearest cemetery who were still regarded as “from away,” although that wasn’t quite as bad as being branded a “rusticator,” the locals’ favorite term of abuse for city folks who came Down East in order to get in touch with country living.

  “Portland,” I answered.

  “Huh.” Voisine sounded unimpressed. He leaned against his car, removed a Quality Light from a pack in his shirt pocket, then offered the pack to me. I shook my head and watched as he lit up. Quality Lights: he’d have been better off throwing the cigarettes away and trying to smoke the packaging.

  “You know,” I said, “if we were in a movie, smoking a cigarette would automatically brand you as a bad guy.”

  “Is that so?” he replied. “I’ll have to remember that.”

  “Take it as a crime stopper’s tip.”

  Somehow, largely through my own efforts, the conversation appeared to have taken a slightly antagonistic turn. I watched while Voisine appraised me through a cloud of cigarette smoke, as if the mutual dislike we instinctively felt had become visible between us.

  “Sergeant says you want to talk to me about the Peltier woman,” said Voisine at last.

  “That’s right. I hear you were the first on the scene.”

  He nodded. “There was a lot of blood, but I saw the gun in her hand and thought: suicide. First thing I thought, and it turns out I was right.”

  “From what I hear, the verdict may still be open.”

  He stared at me, then shrugged. “Did you know her?” he asked.

  “A little,” I replied. “From way back.”

  “I’m sorry.” He didn’t even try to put any emotion into the words.

  “What did you do after you found her?”

  “Called it in, then waited.”

  “Who arrived after you?”

  “Another patrol, ambulance. Doc pronounced her dead at the scene.”

  “Detectives?”

  He flicked his head back like a man who suddenly realizes he has left out something important. It was a curiously theatrical gesture.

  “Sure. CID.”

  “You remember his name?”

  “Lutz. John Lutz.”

  “He get here before, or after, the second patrol?”

  Voisine paused. “Before,” he said at last.

  “Must have got here pretty fast,” I said, keeping my tone as neutral as possible.

  Voisine shrugged again. “Guess he was in the area.”

  “Guess so,” I said. “Was there anything in the car?”

  “I don’t understand, sir.”

  “Purse, suitcase, that kind of thing?”

  “There was a bag with a change of clothes and a small purse with make-up, a wallet, keys.”

  “Nothing else?”

  Something clicked in Voisine’s throat before he spoke.

  “No.”

  I thanked him and he finished off his cigarette, then tossed the butt on the ground, stamping it out beneath his heel. Just as he was about to get back into his car I called to him.

  “Just one more thing, Trooper,” I said.

  I walked down to join him. He paused, half in and half out of the car, and stared at me.

  “How did you find her?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean, how did you see the car from the road? I can’t see my car from here and it’s parked in pretty much the same spot. I’m just wondering how you came to find her, seeing as how she was hidden by the trees.”

  He said nothing for a time. The smile was gone now, and I wasn’t sure what had replaced it. Trooper Voisine was a difficult man to read.

  “We get a lot of speeding on this road,” he said at last. “I sometimes pull in here to wait. That’s how I found her.”

  “Ah,” I said. “That explains it. Thanks for your time.”

  “Sure,” he replied. He closed the door and started the engine, then turned onto the road and headed north. I followed him out and made sure that I stayed in his mirror until he was gone from my sight.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  There was little traffic on the road from Ellsworth to Bar Harbor as I drove through the gathering dusk of the early evening. The season had not yet begun, which meant that the locals still had the place pretty much to themselves. The streets were quiet, most of the restaurants were closed, and there was digging equipment on the site of the town’s park, piles of earth now standing where there used to be green grass. Sherman’s bookstore was still open on Main Street, and it was the first time that I had ever seen Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium empty. Ben & Bill’s was even offering 50 percent off all candies. If they tried that after Memorial Day, people would be killed in the stampede.

  The Acadia Pines Motel was situated by the junction of Main and Park. It was a pretty standard tourist place, probably operating at the lower end of the market. It consisted of a single two-story, L-shaped block painted yellow and white, numbering about forty rooms in total. When I pulled into the lot there were only two other cars parked and there seemed to be a kind of desperation about the ferocity with which the VACANCIES sign glowed and hummed. I stepped from the car and noticed that the pain in my side had faded to a dull ache, although when I examined my body in the dashboard light I could still see the imprint of Lutz’s knuckles on my skin.

  Inside the motel office, a woman in a pale blue dress sat behind the desk, the television tuned to a news show and a copy of TV Guide lying open beside her. She sipped from a Grateful Dead mug decorated with lines of dancing teddy bears, chipped red nail polish showing on her fingers. Her hair was dyed a kind of purple black and shined like a new bruise. Her face was wrinkled and her hands looked old, but she was probably no more than fifty-five, if that. She tried to smile as I entered, but it made her look as if someone had inserted a pair of fishhooks into the corners of her mouth and pulled gently.

  “Hi,” she said. “Are you looking for a room?”

  “No, thank you,” I replied. “I’m looking for Marcy Becker.”

  There was a pause that spoke volumes. The office stayed silent but I could still hear her screaming in her head. I watched her as she ran through the various lying options open to her. You have the wrong place. I don’t know any Marcy Becker. She’s not here and I don’t know where she is. In the end, she settled for a variation on the third choice.

  “Marcy isn’t here. She doesn’t live here anymore.”

  “I see,” I said. “Are you Mrs. Becker?”

  That pause came again, then she nodded.

  I reached into my pocket and showed her my ID. “My name is Charlie Parker, Mrs. Becker. I’m a private investigator. I’ve been hired to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of a woman named Grace Peltier. I believe Marcy was a friend of Grace’s, is that correct?”

  Pause. Nod.

  “Mrs. Becker, when was the last time you saw Grace?”

  “I don’t recall,” she
said. Her voice was dry and cracked, so she coughed and repeated her answer with only marginally more assurance. “I don’t recall.” She took a sip of coffee from her mug.

  “Was it when she came to collect Marcy, Mrs. Becker? That would have been a couple of weeks ago.”

  “She never came to collect Marcy,” said Mrs. Becker quickly. “Marcy hasn’t seen her in . . . I don’t know how long.”

  “Your daughter didn’t attend Grace’s funeral. Don’t you think that’s strange?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. I watched her fingers slide beneath the counter and saw her arm tense as she pressed the panic button.

  “Are you worried about Marcy, Mrs. Becker?”

  This time, the pause went on for what seemed like a very long time. When she spoke, her mouth answered no but her eyes whispered yes.

  Behind me, I heard the door of the office open. When I turned, a short, bald man in a golf sweater and blue polyester pants stood before me. He had a golf club in his hand.

  “Did I interrupt your round?” I asked.

  He shifted the club in his hand. It looked like a nine iron. “Can I help you, mister?”

  “I hope so, or maybe I can help you,” I said.

  “He was asking about Marcy, Hal,” said Mrs. Becker.

  “I can handle this, Francine,” her husband assured her, although even he didn’t look convinced.

  “I don’t think so, Mr. Becker, not if all you’ve got is a cheap golf club.”

  A rivulet of panic sweat trickled down from his brow and into his eyes. He blinked it away, then raised the club to shoulder height in a two-armed grip. “Get out,” he said.

  My ID was still open in my right hand. With my left, I took one of my business cards from my pocket and laid it on the counter. “Okay, Mr. Becker, have it your way. But before I go, let me tell you something. I think someone may have killed Grace Peltier. Maybe you’re telling me the truth, but if you’re not, then I think your daughter has some idea who that person might be. If I could figure that out, then so can whoever killed her friend. And if that person comes asking questions, then he probably won’t be as nice about it as I am. You bear that in mind after I’m gone.”

  The club moved forward an inch or two. “I’m telling you for the last time,” he said, “get out of this office.”

  I flipped my wallet closed, slipped it into my jacket pocket, then walked to the door, Hal Becker circling me with his golf club to keep some swinging distance between us. “I have a feeling you’ll be calling me,” I said as I opened the door and stepped into the lot.

  “Don’t you bet on it,” replied Becker. As I started my car and drove away, he remained standing at the door, the golf club still raised, like a frustrated amateur with a huge handicap stuck in the biggest, deepest bunker in the world.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  On the drive back to Scarborough I ran through what I had learned, which wasn’t much. I knew that Carter Paragon was being kept under wraps by Ms. Torrance and that Lutz seemed to have more than a professional interest in keeping him that way. I knew that something about Voisine’s discovery of Grace’s body made me uneasy, and Lutz’s involvement in that discovery made me uneasier still. And I knew that Hal and Francine Becker were scared. There were a lot of reasons why people might not want a private detective questioning their child. Maybe Marcy Becker was a porn star, or sold drugs to high school kids. Or maybe their daughter had told them to keep quiet about her whereabouts until whatever she was worried about had blown over. I still had Ali Wynn, Grace’s Boston friend, to talk to, but already Marcy Becker was looking like a woman worth pursuing.

  It seemed that Curtis Peltier and Jack Mercier were right to suspect the official version of Grace’s death, but I also felt that everybody I had met over the past couple of days was either lying to me or holding something back. It was time to rectify that situation, and I had an idea where I wanted to start. Despite my tiredness, I took the Congress Street exit, then headed onto Danforth and pulled up in front of Curtis Peltier’s house.

  The old man answered the door wearing a nightgown and bedroom slippers. Inside, I could hear the sound of the television in the kitchen, so I knew I hadn’t woken him.

  “You find out something?” he asked as he motioned me into the hallway and closed the door behind me.

  “No,” I replied, “but I hope to pretty soon.”

  I followed him into the kitchen and took the same seat I had occupied the day before, while Peltier hit the mute button on the remote. He was watching Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum oozing evil as the psychotic preacher with the tattooed knuckles.

  “Mr. Peltier,” I began, “why did you and Jack Mercier cease to be business partners?”

  He didn’t look away, but his eyes blinked closed for slightly longer than usual. When they opened again, he seemed tired. “What do you mean?”

  “I mean, was it for business or personal reasons?”

  “When you’re in partnership with your friend, then all business is personal,” he replied. This time, he did look away when he said it.

  “That’s not answering the question.”

  I waited for a further reply. The silence of the kitchen was broken only by the sound of his breathing. On the screen to my left, two children drifted down the river on a small boat, lost in darkness.

  “Have you ever been betrayed by a friend, Mr. Parker?” he asked at last.

  Now it was my turn to flinch. “Once or twice,” I answered quietly.

  “Which was it—once, or twice?”

  “Twice.”

  “What happened to them?”

  “The first one died.”

  “And the second?”

  I heard my heart beating in the few seconds it took me to reply. It sounded impossibly loud.

  “I killed him.”

  “Either he betrayed you badly, or you’re a harsh judge of men.”

  “I was pretty tense, once upon a time.”

  “And now?”

  “I take deep breaths and count to ten.”

  He smiled. “Does it work?”

  “I don’t know. I’ve never made it as far as ten.”

  “I guess it don’t, then.”

  “I guess not. Do you want to tell me what happened between you and Jack Mercier?”

  He shook his head. “No, I don’t want to tell you, but I get the feeling you have your own ideas about what might have happened.”

  I did, but I was as reluctant to say them out loud as Peltier was to tell me. Even thinking them in the company of this man who had lost his only child so recently seemed like an unforgivable discourtesy.

  “It was personal, wasn’t it?” I asked him softly.

  “Yes, it was very personal.”

  I watched him carefully in the lamplight, took in his eyes, the shape of his face, his hair, even his ears and his Grecian nose. There was nothing of him in Grace, nothing that I could recall. But there was something of Jack Mercier in her. I was almost certain of it. It had struck me most forcefully after I stood in his library and looked at the photographs on the wall, the images of the young Jack triumphant. Yes, I could see Grace in him, and I could recall Jack in her. Yet I wasn’t certain, and even if it was true, to say it aloud would hurt the old man. He seemed to sense what I was thinking, and my response to it, because what he said next answered everything.

  “She was my daughter, Mr. Parker,” he said, and his eyes were two deep wells of hurt and pride and remembered betrayal. “My daughter in every way that mattered. I raised her, bathed her, held her when she cried, collected her from school, watched her grow, supported her in all that she did, and kissed her good night every time she stayed with me. He had almost nothing to do with her, not in life. But now, I need him to do something for her and for me, maybe even for himself.”

  “Did she know?”

  “You mean, did I tell her? No, I didn’t. But you suspected, and so did she.”

  “Did she have contact with Jack Mercier?


  “He paid for her graduate research because I couldn’t afford to. It was done through an educational trust he established, but I think it confirmed what Grace had always believed. Since the funding began, Grace had met him on a few occasions, usually at events organized by the trust. He also let her look at some books he had out at the house, something to do with her thesis. But the issue of her parentage was never discussed. We’d agreed on that: Jack, my late wife, and I.”

  “You stayed together?”

  “I loved her,” he said simply. “Even after what she’d done, I still loved her. Things were never the same because of it, but yes, we stayed together and I wept for her when she died.”

  “Was Mercier married at the time of . . .” I allowed the sentence to peter out.

  “The time of the affair?” he finished. “No, he met his wife a few years later, and they were married a year or so after that again.”

  “Do you think she knew about Grace?”

  He sighed. “I don’t know, but I guess he must have told her. He’s that kind of man. Hell, it was him who confessed to me, not my wife. Jack just had to relieve himself of the burden. He has all the weaknesses that come with a conscience, but none of the strengths.” It was the first hint of bitterness he had revealed.

  “I have another question, Mr. Peltier. Why did Grace choose to research the Aroostook Baptists?”

  “Because she was related to two of them,” he replied. He said it matter-of-factly, as if it had never occurred to him that it might be relevant.

  “You didn’t mention it before,” I said, keeping my voice even.

  “I guess it didn’t seem important.” His voice faltered and he sighed. “Or maybe I thought that if I told you that, I’d have to tell you about Jack Mercier and . . .” He waved a hand dispiritedly. “The Aroostook Baptists were what brought Jack Mercier and me together,” he began. “We weren’t friends then. We met at a lecture on the history of Eagle Lake, first and last we ever attended. We went out of curiosity more than concern. My cousin was a woman called Elizabeth Jessop. Jack Mercier’s second cousin was Lyall Kellog. Do any of those names mean anything to you, Mr. Parker?”

  I thought back to the newspaper report the previous day and the picture of the assembled families taken before they departed for northern Aroostook.

 
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