Black House - Chapter Six



IN THE READY ROOM of the French Landing P.D., the phone on the desk rings. Bobby Dulac has been mining for nose-gold. Now he squashes his latest treasure on the sole of his shoe and picks up the phone.

"Yell-o, Police Department, Officer Dulac speaking, how can I help you?"

"Hey, Bobby. It's Danny Tcheda."

Bobby feels a prink of unease. Danny Tcheda ¡ª last name pronounced Cheetah ¡ª is one of French Landing's fourteen full-time RMP cops. He's currently on duty, and ordinary procedure dictates that duty cops radio in ¡ª that's what the R in RMP stands for, after all. The only exception to the rule has to do with the Fisherman. Dale has mandated that patrol officers call in on a landline if they think they have a situation involving the killer. Too many people have their ears on out there, doubtless including Wendell "Pisshead" Green.

"Danny, what's up?"

"Maybe nothing, maybe something not so good. I got a bike and a sneaker in the trunk of my car. I found 'em over on Queen Street. Near Maxton Elder Care?"

Bobby draws a pad toward him and begins to jot. The tickle of unease has become a sinking feeling.

"Nothing wrong with the bike," Danny continues, "just sitting there on its kickstand, but combined with the sneaker . . ."

"Yeah, yeah, I see your point, Danny, but you never should have fooled with what could be evidence of a crime." Please God don't let it be evidence of a crime, Bobby Dulac is thinking. Please God don't let it be another one.

Irma Freneau's mother has just been in to see Dale, and while there was no screaming or shouting, she came out with tears on her cheeks and looking like death on the half shell. They can't still be sure the little girl has become the Fisherman's third victim, but ¡ª

"Bobby, I had to," Danny is saying. "I'm ridin' solo, I didn't want to put this out on the air, I hadda find a phone. If I'd left the bike there, someone else coulda monkeyed with it. Hell, stolen it. This is a good bike, Schwinn three-speed. Better'n the one my kid's got, tell you that."

"What's your twenty?"

"7-Eleven, up the hill on 35. What I did was mark the location of the bike and the sneaker with chalk X's on the sidewalk. I handled them with gloves and put the sneaker in an evidence bag." Danny is sounding more and more anxious. Bobby knows how he must feel, sympathizes with the choices Danny had to make. Riding solo is a bitch, but French Landing is already supporting as many cops ¡ª full-time and part-time ¡ª as the budget will bear. Unless, of course, this Fisherman business gets totally out of control; in that case, the town fathers will no doubt discover a bit more elastic in the budget.

Maybe it's already out of control, Bobby thinks.

"Okay, Danny. Okay. See your point." Whether or not Dale sees it is a whole 'nother thing, Bobby thinks.

Danny lowers his voice. "No one needs to know I broke the chain of evidence, do they? I mean, if the subject ever came up. In court, or something."

"I guess that's up to Dale." Oh God, Bobby thinks. A new problem has just occurred to him. All calls that come in on this phone are automatically taped. Bobby decides the taping machinery is about to have a malfunction, retroactive to about two o'clock in the afternoon.

"And you want to know the other thing?" Danny is asking. "The big thing? I didn't want people to see it. A bike standing all by itself that way, you don't have to be Sherlock Fucking Holmes to draw a certain conclusion. And folks're getting close to the panic line, especially after that goddamned irresponsible story in the paper this morning. I didn't want to call from Maxton's for the same reason."

"I'm gonna put you on hold. You better talk to Dale."

In a vastly unhappy voice, Danny says: "Oh boy."

In Dale Gilbertson's office there is a bulletin board dominated by enlarged photographs of Amy St. Pierre and Johnny Irkenham. A third photo will be added soon, he fears ¡ª that of Irma Freneau. Beneath the two current photos, Dale sits at his desk, smoking a Marlboro 100. He's got the fan on. It will, he hopes, blow the smoke away. Sarah would just about kill him if she knew he was smoking again, but dear Jesus Christ, he needs something.

His interview with Tansy Freneau had been short and nothing short of purgatorial. Tansy is a juicer, a regular patron of the Sand Bar, and during their interview the smell of coffee brandy was so strong it almost seemed to be coming out of her pores (another excuse for the fan). Half drunk, she had been, and Dale was glad. It kept her calm, at least. It didn't put any sparkle in her dead eyes, coffee brandy was no good for that, but she had been calm. Hideously, she had even said "Thank you for helping me, sir" before leaving.

Tansy's ex ¡ª Irma's father ¡ª lives across the state in Green Bay ("Green Bay is the devil's town," Dale's father used to say, God knows why), where he works in a garage and, according to Tansy, supports several bars with names like the End Zone and the Fifty-Yard Line. Until today, there has been some reason to believe ¡ª at least to hope ¡ª that Richard "Cubby" Freneau snatched his daughter. An e-mail from the Green Bay Police Department has put paid to that little idea. Cubby Freneau is living with a woman who has two kids of her own, and he was in jail ¡ª D & D ¡ª the day Irma disappeared. There is still no body, and Tansy hasn't received a letter from the Fisherman, but ¡ª

The door opens. Bobby Dulac sticks his head in. Dale mashes his cigarette out on the inside lip of the wastebasket, burning the back of his hand with sparks in the process.

"Gosh 'n' fishes, Bobby, do you know how to knock?"

"Sorry, Chief." Bobby looks at the smoke ribboning up from the wastebasket with neither surprise nor interest. "Danny Tcheda's on the phone. I think you better take it."

"What's it about?" But he knows. Why else would it be the phone?

Bobby only repeats, not without sympathy, "I think you better take it."

The car sent by Rebecca Vilas delivers Henry to Maxton Elder Care at three-thirty, ninety minutes before the Strawberry Fest! dance is scheduled to begin. The idea is for the old folks to work up an appetite on the floor, then troop down to the caff ¡ª suitably decorated for the occasion ¡ª for a glamorously late (seven-thirty is quite late for Maxton's) dinner. With wine, for those who drink it.

A resentful Pete Wexler has been drafted by Rebecca Vilas to bring in the deejay's shit (Pete thinks of Henry as "the blind record-hopper"). Said shit consists of two speakers (very large), one turntable (light, but awkward as a motherfucker to carry), one preamp (very heavy), assorted wires (all tangled up, but that's the blind record-hopper's problem), and four boxes of actual records, which went out of style about a hundred years ago. Pete guesses that the blind record-hopper never heard a CD in his whole life.

The last item is a suit bag on a hanger. Pete has peeked in and ascertained that the suit is white.

"Hang it in there, please," Henry says, pointing with unerring accuracy toward the supply closet that has been designated his dressing room.

"Okay," Pete says. "What exactly is it, if you don't mind me asking?"

Henry smiles. He knows perfectly well that Pete has already had a peep. He heard the plastic bag rattling and the zipper chinking in a duet that only occurs when someone pulls the bag away from the hanger at the neck. "Inside that bag, my friend, Symphonic Stan, the Big-Band Man, is just waiting for me to put him on and bring him to life."

"Oh, uh-huh," Pete says, not knowing if he has been answered or not. All he's really sure of is that those records were almost as heavy as the preamp. Someone should really give the blind record-hopper some information about CDs, the next great leap forward.

"You asked me one; may I ask you one?"

"Be my guest," Pete says.

"There appears to have been a police presence at Maxton Elder Care this afternoon," the blind record-hopper says. "They're gone now, but they were here when I arrived. What's that about? There hasn't been a robbery or an assault among the geriatrics, I hope?"

Pete stops in his tracks beneath a large cardboard strawberry, holding the suit bag and looking at the blind record-hopper with an amazement Henry can almost touch. "How'd you know the cops were here?"

Henry puts a finger to the side of his nose and tips his head to one side. He replies in a hoarse, conspiratorial whisper. "Smelled something blue."

Pete looks puzzled, debates whether or not to inquire further, and decides not to. Resuming his march toward the supply closet¨Cdressing room, he says: "They're playing it cagey, but I think they're looking for another lost kid."

The look of amused curiosity fades from Henry's face. "Good Christ," he says.

"They came and went in a hurry. No kids here, Mr . . . uh, Leyden?"

"Leyden," Henry confirms.

"A kid in this place would stand out like a rose in a patch of poison ivy, if you know what I mean."

Henry doesn't consider old folks in any way analogous to poison ivy, but he does indeed get Mr. Wexler's drift. "What made them think ¡ª ?"

"Someone found sumpin' on the sidewalk," Pete says. He points out the window, then realizes the blind guy can't see him pointing. Duh, as Ebbie would say. He lowers his hand. "If a kid got snatched, someone probably came along in a car and snatched him. No kidnapers in here, I can tell you that much." Pete laughs at the very idea of a Maxton moldy oldie snatching any kid big enough to ride a bike. The kid would probably break the guy over his knee like a dry stick.

"No," Henry says soberly, "that hardly seems likely, does it?"

"But I guess the cops got to dot all the t's and cross all the i's." He pauses. "That's just a little joke of mine."

Henry smiles politely, thinking that with some people, Alzheimer's disease might be an actual improvement. "When you hang my suit up, Mr. Wexler, would you be so good as to give it a gentle shake? Just to banish any incipient wrinkles?"

"Okay. Want me to take it out of the bag forya?"

"Thanks, that won't be necessary."

Pete goes into the supply closet, hangs up the suit bag, and gives it a little shake. Incipient, just what the hell does that mean? There's a rudiment of a library here at Maxton's; maybe he'll look it up in the dictionary. It pays to increase your word power, as it says in the Reader's Digest, although Pete doubts it will pay him much in this job.

When he goes back out to the common room, the blind record-hopper ¡ª Mr. Leyden, Symphonic Stan, whoever the hell he is ¡ª has begun unraveling wires and plugging them in with a speed and accuracy Pete finds a trifle unnerving.

Poor old Fred Marshall is having a terrible dream. Knowing it's a dream should make it less horrible but somehow doesn't. He's in a rowboat with Judy, out on a lake. Judy is sitting in the bow. They are fishing. He is, at least; Judy is just holding her pole. Her face is an expressionless blank. Her skin is waxy. Her eyes have a stunned, hammered look. He labors with increasing desperation to make contact with her, trying one conversational gambit after another. None work. To make what is, under the circumstances, a fairly apt metaphor, she spits every lure. He sees that her empty eyes appear fixed on the creel sitting between them in the bottom of the boat. Blood is oozing through the wickerwork in fat red dribbles.

It's nothing, just fishblood, he tries to assure her, but she makes no reply. In fact, Fred isn't so sure himself. He's thinking he ought to take a look inside the creel, just to be sure, when his pole gives a tremendous jerk ¡ª if not for quick reflexes, he would have lost it over the side. He's hooked a big one!

Fred reels it in, the fish on the other end of the line fighting him for every foot. Then, when he finally gets it near the boat, he realizes he has no net. Hell with it, he thinks, go for broke. He whips the pole backward, just daring the line to snap, and the fish ¡ª biggest goddamned lake trout you'd ever hope to see ¡ª flies out of the water and through the air in a gleaming, fin-flipping arc. It lands in the bottom of the boat (beside the oozing creel, in fact) and begins thrashing. It also begins to make gruesome choking noises. Fred has never heard a fish make noises like that. He bends forward and is horrified to see that the trout has Tyler's face. His son has somehow become a weretrout, and now he's dying in the bottom of the boat. Strangling.

Fred grabs at it, wanting to remove the hook and throw it back while there's still time, but the terrible choking thing keeps slipping through his fingers, leaving only a shiny slime of scales behind. It would be tough to get the hook out, in any case. The Ty-fish has swallowed it whole, and the barbed tip is actually protruding from one of the gills, just below the point where the human face melts away. Ty's choking becomes louder, harsher, infinitely more horrible ¡ª

Fred sits up with a low cry, feeling as if he's choking himself. For a moment he's completely adrift as to place and time ¡ª lost in the slippage, we might say ¡ª and then he realizes he's in his own bedroom, sitting up on his side of the bed he shares with Judy.

He notices that the light in here is much dimmer, because the sun has moved to the other side of the house. My God, he thinks, how long have I been asleep? How could I ¡ª

Oh, but here is another thing: that hideous choking sound has followed him out of his dream. It's louder than ever. It will wake Judy, scare her ¡ª

Judy is no longer on the bed, though.

"Jude? Judy?"

She's sitting in the corner. Her eyes are wide and blank, just as they were in his dream. A corsage of crumpled paper is protruding from her mouth. Her throat is grotesquely swelled, looks to Fred like a sausage that has been grilled until the casing is ready to pop.

More paper, he thinks. Christ, she's choking on it.

Fred rolls himself across the bed, falls off, and lands on his knees like a gymnast doing a trick. He reaches for her. She makes no move to evade him. There's that, at least. And although she's choking, he still sees no expression in her eyes. They are dusty zeros.

Fred yanks the corsage of paper from her mouth. There's another behind it. Fred reaches between her teeth, tweezes this second ball of paper between the first two fingers of his right hand (thinking Please don't bite me, Judy, please don't), and pulls it out, too. There's a third ball of paper behind this one, way at the back of her mouth. He gets hold of this one as well, and extracts it. Although it's crumpled, he can see the printed words GREAT IDEA, and knows what she's swallowed: sheets of paper from the notepad Ty gave her for her birthday.

She's still choking. Her skin is turning slate.

Fred grabs her by her upper arms and pulls her up. She comes easily, but when he relaxes his hold her knees bend and she starts to go back down. She's turned into Raggedy Ann. The choking sound continues. Her sausage throat ¡ª

"Help me, Judy! Help me, you bitch!"

Unaware of what he is saying. He yanks her hard ¡ª as hard as he yanked the fishing pole in his dream ¡ª and spins her around like a ballerina when she comes up on her toes. Then he seizes her in a bear hug, his wrists brushing the undersides of her breasts, her bottom tight against his crotch, the kind of position he would find extremely sexy if his wife didn't happen to be choking to death.

He pops his thumb up between her breasts like a hitchhiker, then says the magic word as he pulls sharply upward and backward. The magic word is Heimlich, and it works. Two more wads of paper fly from Judy's mouth, propelled by a jet of vomit that is little more than bile ¡ª her intake of food over the last twelve hours amounts to three cups of coffee and a cranberry muffin.

She gives a gasp, coughs twice, then begins to breathe more or less normally.

He puts her on the bed . . . drops her on the bed. His lower back is spasming wildly, and it's really no wonder; first Ty's dresser, now this.

"Well, what did you think you were doing?" he asks her loudly. "What in the name of Christ did you think you were doing?"

He realizes that he has raised one hand over Judy's upturned face as if to strike her. Part of him wants to strike her. He loves her, but at this moment he also hates her. He has imagined plenty of bad things over the years they've been married ¡ª Judy getting cancer, Judy paralyzed in an accident, Judy first taking a lover and then demanding a divorce ¡ª but he has never imagined Judy going chickenshit on him, and isn't that what this amounts to?

"What did you think you were doing?"

She looks at him without fear . . . but without anything else, either. Her eyes are dead. Her husband lowers his hand, thinking: I'd cut it off before I hit you. I might be pissed at you, I am pissed at you, but I'd cut it off before I did that.

Judy rolls over, face-down on the coverlet, her hair spread around her head in a corona.


Nothing. She just lies there.

Fred looks at her for a moment, then uncrumples one of the slimy balls of paper with which she has tried to strangle herself. It is covered with tangles of scribbled words. Gorg, abbalah, eeleelee, munshun, bas, lum, opopanax: these mean nothing to him. Others ¡ª drudge, asswipe, black, red, Chicago, and Ty ¡ª are actual words but have no context. Printed up one side of the sheet is IF YOU'VE GOT PRINCE ALBERT IN A CAN, HOW CAN YOU EVER GET HIM OUT? Up the other, like a teletype stuck in repeat mode, is this: BLACK HOUSE CRIMSON KING BLACK HOUSE CRIMSON KING BLACK

If you waste time looking for sense in this, you're as crazy as she is, Fred thinks. You can't waste time ¡ª


He looks at the clock on his side of the bed and cannot believe its news: 4:17 P.M. Is that possible? He looks at his watch and sees that it is.

Knowing it's foolish, knowing he would have heard his son come in even if in a deep sleep, Fred strides to the door on big nerveless legs. "Ty!" he yells. "Hey, Ty! TYLER!"

Waiting for an answer that will not come, Fred realizes that everything in his life has changed, quite possibly forever. People tell you this can happen ¡ª in the blink of an eye, they say, before you know it, they say ¡ª but you don't believe it. Then a wind comes.

Go down to Ty's room? Check? Be sure?

Ty isn't there ¡ª Fred knows this ¡ª but he does it just the same. The room is empty, as he knew it would be. And it looks oddly distorted, almost sinister, with the dresser now on the other side.

Judy. You left her alone, you idiot. She'll be chewing paper again by now, they're clever, mad people are clever ¡ª

Fred dashes back down to the master bedroom and exhales a sigh of relief when he sees Judy lying just as he left her, face-down, hair spread around her head. He discovers that his worries about his mad wife are now secondary to his worries about his missing son.

He'll be home by four, at the latest . . . take it to the bank. So he had thought. But four has come and gone. A strong wind has arisen and blown the bank away. Fred walks to his side of the bed and sits down beside his wife's splayed right leg. He picks up the phone and punches in a number. It's an easy number, only three digits.

"Yell-o, Police Department, Officer Dulac speaking, you've dialed 911, do you have an emergency?"

"Officer Dulac, this is Fred Marshall. I'd like to speak to Dale, if he's still there." Fred is pretty sure Dale is. He works late most nights, especially since ¡ª

He pushes the rest away, but inside his head the wind blows harder. Louder.

"Gee, Mr. Marshall, he's here, but he's in a meeting and I don't think I can ¡ª "

"Get him."

"Mr. Marshall, you're not hearing me. He's in with two guys from the WSP and one from the FBI. If you could just tell me ¡ª "

Fred closes his eyes. It's interesting, isn't it? Something interesting here. He called in on the 911 line, but the idiot on the other end seems to have forgotten that. Why? Because it's someone he knows. It's good old Fred Marshall, bought a Deere lawn tractor from him just the year before last. Must have dialed 911 because it was easier than looking up the regular number. Because no one Bobby knows can actually have an emergency.

Fred remembers having a similar idea himself that morning ¡ª a different Fred Marshall, one who believed that the Fisherman could never touch his son. Not his son.

Ty's gone.Gorg fascinated him and the abbalah took him.

"Hello? Mr. Marshall? Fred? Are you still ¡ª "

"Listen to me," Fred says, his eyes still closed. Down at Goltz's, he would be calling the man on the other end Bobby by now, but Goltz's has never seemed so far away; Goltz's is in the star-system Opopanax, on Planet Abbalah. "Listen to me carefully. Write it down if you have to. My wife has gone mad and my son is missing. Do you understand those things? Wife mad. Son missing. Now put me through to the chief!"

But Bobby Dulac doesn't, not right away. He has made a deduction. A more diplomatic police officer ( Jack Sawyer as he was in his salad days, for instance) would have kept said deduction to himself, but Bobby can't do that. Bobby has hooked a big one.

"Mr. Marshall? Fred? Your son doesn't own a Schwinn, does he? Three-speed Schwinn, red? Got a novelty license plate that reads . . . uh . . . BIG MAC?"

Fred cannot answer. For several long and terrible moments he cannot even draw a breath. Between his ears, the wind blows both louder and harder. Now it's a hurricane.

Gorg fascinated him . . . the abbalah took him.

At last, just when it seems he will begin to strangle himself, his chest unlocks and he takes in a huge, tearing breath. "PUT CHIEF GIL-BERTSONON!DOITNOW,YOUMOTHERFUCKER!"

Although he shrieks this at the top of his lungs, the woman lying face-down on the coverlet beside him never moves. There is a click. He's on hold. Not for long, but it's long enough for him to see the scratched, bald place on his missing son's bedroom wall, the swelled column of his mad wife's throat, and blood dribbling through the creel in his dream. His back spasms cruelly, and Fred welcomes the pain. It's like getting a telegram from the real world.

Then Dale is on the phone, Dale is asking him what's wrong, and Fred Marshall begins to cry.

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