Black House - Chapter Twelve



A FEW MINUTES LATER, the pickup lurches to a halt between the last of the trees, where the macadam disappears into the weeds and tall grass. The Thunder Five's motorcycles stand tilted in a neat row a few yards ahead and off to his left. Wendell, who has replaced Freddy Saknessum on the seat, gets out and moves a few paces forward, hoping that none of the ripe aroma of dried sweat, unwashed flesh, and stale beer emerging from his fellow passengers has clung to his clothing. Behind him, he hears Freddy jumping down from the back of the truck as the others climb out and shut the doors without making any more than twice as much noise as necessary. All Wendell can see from his position is the colorless, rotting rear wall of Ed's Eats rising from a thick tangle of Queen Anne's lace and tiger lilies. Low voices, one of them Beezer St. Pierre's, come to him. Wendell gives the Nikon a quick once-over, removes the lens cap, and cranks a new roll of film into place before moving with slow, quiet steps past the bikes and along the side of the ruined structure.

Soon he is able to see the overgrown access road and the patrol car astride it like a barrier. Down close to the highway, Danny Tcheda and Pam Stevens wrangle with half a dozen men and women who have left their cars strewn like toys behind them. That's not going to work much longer: if Tcheda and Stevens are supposed to be a dam, the dam is about to spring some serious leaks. Good news for Wendell: a maximum amount of confusion would give him a lot more leeway and make for a more colorful story. He wishes he could murmur into his recorder right now.

The inexperience of Chief Gilbertson's force was evident in the futile efforts of Officers Tcheda and Stevens to turn back the numbers of those citizens eager to witness for themselves the latest evidence of the Fisherman's insanity . . . Ah, something, something, then: but this journalist was able to place himself at the heart of the scene, where he felt proud and humbled to serve as the eyes and ears of his readers . . .

Wendell hates to lose such splendid stuff, but he cannot be sure he will remember it, and he does not dare to take the risk of being overheard. He moves closer to the front of Ed's Eats.

The humble ears of the public take in the sound of Beezer St. Pierre and Dale Gilbertson having a surprisingly amiable conversation directly in front of the building; the humble eyes of the public observe Jack Sawyer walking into view, an empty plastic bag and a baseball cap swinging from the fingers of his right hand. The humble nose of the public reports a truly awful stench that guarantees the presence of a decomposing body in the shabby little structure to the right. Jack is moving a little more quickly than usual, and although it is clear that he is just going to his pickup, he keeps glancing from side to side.

What's going on here? Golden Boy looks more than a little furtive. He's acting like a shoplifter just stuffing the goodies under his coat, and golden boys shouldn't behave that way. Wendell raises his camera and focuses in on his target. There you are, Jack old boy, old fellow, old sport, crisp as a new bill and twice as sharp. Look pretty for the camera, now, and let us see what you've got in your hand, okay? Wendell snaps a picture and watches through his viewfinder as Jack approaches his truck. Golden Boy is going to stash those things in the glove compartment, Wendell thinks, and he doesn't want anyone to see him do it. Too bad, kid, you're on Candid Camera. And too bad for the proud yet humble eyes and ears of French County, because when Jack Sawyer reaches his truck he does not climb in but leans over the side and fiddles around with something, giving our noble journalist a fine view of his back and nothing else. The noble journalist takes a picture anyhow, to establish a sequence with the next photo, in which Jack Sawyer turns away from his truck empty-handed and no longer furtive. He stashed his grubby treasures back there and got them out of sight, but what made them treasures?

Then a lightning bolt strikes Wendell Green. His scalp shivers, and his crinkly hair threatens to straighten out. A great story just became unbelievably great. Fiendish Murderer, Mutilated Dead Child, and . . . the Downfall of a Hero! Jack Sawyer walks out of the ruin carrying a plastic bag and a Brewers cap, tries to make sure he is unobserved, and hides the stuff in his truck. He found those things in Ed's Eats, and he squirreled them away right under the nose of his friend and admirer Dale Gilbertson. Golden Boy removed evidence from the scene of a crime! And Wendell has the proof on film, Wendell has the goods on the high-and-mighty Jack Sawyer, Wendell is going to bring him down with one god-almighty huge crash. Man oh man, Wendell feels like dancing, he does, and is unable to restrain himself from executing a clumsy jig with the wonderful camera in his hands and a sloppy grin on his face.

He feels so good, so triumphant, that he almost decides to forget about the four idiots waiting for his signal and just pack it in. But hey, let's not get all warm and fuzzy here. The supermarket tabloids are panting for a nice, gruesome photograph of Irma Freneau's dead body, and Wendell Green is the man to give it to them.

Wendell takes another cautious step toward the front of the ruined building and sees something that stops him cold. Four of the bikers have gone down to the end of the overgrown lane, where they seem to be helping Tcheda and Stevens turn away the people who want to get a good look at all the bodies. Teddy Runkleman heard that the Fisherman stowed at least six, maybe eight half-eaten kids in that shack: the news grew more and more sensational as it filtered through the community. So the cops can use the extra help, but Wendell wishes that Beezer and crew were blowing the lid off things instead of helping to keep it on. He comes to the end of the building and peers around it to see everything that is going on. If he is to get what he wants, he will have to wait for the perfect moment.

A second FLPD car noses in through the vehicles hovering out on 35 and moves up past Tcheda's car to swing onto the weeds and rubble in front of the old store. Two youngish part-time cops named Holtz and Nestler get out and stroll toward Dale Gilbertson, trying hard not to react to the stench that gets more sickening with each step they take. Wendell can see that these lads have even more difficulty concealing their dismay and astonishment at seeing their chief engaged in apparently amiable conversation with Beezer St. Pierre, whom they probably suspect of myriad nameless crimes. They are farm boys, UW¨CRiver Falls dropouts, who split a single salary and are trying so hard to make the grade as police officers that they tend to see things in rigid black-and-white. Dale calms them down, and Beezer, who could pick each of them up with one hand and smash their skulls like soft-boiled eggs, smiles benignly. In response to what must have been Dale's orders, the new boys trot back down to the highway, on the way casting worshipful glances at Jack Sawyer, the poor saps.

Jack wanders up to Dale for a little confab. Too bad Dale doesn't know that his buddy is concealing evidence, hah! Or, Wendell considers, does he know ¡ª is he in on it, too? One thing's for sure: it will all come out in the wash, once the Herald runs the telltale pictures.

In the meantime, the dude in the straw hat and the sunglasses just stands there with his arms folded across his chest, looking serene and confident, like he has everything so under control that even the smell can't reach him. This guy is obviously a key player, Wendell thinks. He calls the shots. Golden Boy and Dale want to keep him happy; you can see it in their body language. A touch of respect, of deference. If they are covering something up, they're doing it for him. But why? And what the devil is he? The guy is middle-aged, somewhere in his fifties, a generation older than Jack and Dale; he is too stylish to live in the country, so he's from Madison, maybe, or Milwaukee. He is obviously not a cop, and he doesn't look like a businessman, either. This is one self-reliant mother; that comes through loud and clear.

Then another police car breaches the defenses down on 35 and rolls up beside the part-timers'. Golden Boy and Gilbertson walk up to it and greet Bobby Dulac and that other one, the fat boy, Dit Jesperson, but the dude in the hat doesn't even look their way. Now, that's cool. He stands there, all by himself, like a general surveying his troops. Wendell watches the mystery man produce a cigarette, light up, and exhale a plume of white smoke. Jack and Dale walk the new arrivals into the old store, and this bird keeps on smoking his cigarette, sublimely detached from everything around him. Through the rotting wall, Wendell can hear Dulac and Jesperson complaining about the smell; then one of them grunts Uh! when he sees the body. "Hello boys?" Dulac says. "Is this shit for real? Hello boys?" The voices give Wendell a good fix on the location of the corpse, way back against the far wall.

Before the three cops and Sawyer begin to shuffle toward the front end of the store, Wendell leans out, aims his camera, and snaps a photograph of the mystery man. To his horror, the Cat in the Hat instantly looks in his direction and says, "Who took my picture?" Wendell jerks himself back into the protection of the wall, but he knows the guy must have seen him. Those sunglasses were pointed right at him! The guy has ears like a bat ¡ª he picked up the noise of the shutter. "Come on out," Wendell hears him say. "There's no point in hiding; I know you're there."

From his reduced vantage point, Wendell can just see a State Police car, followed by French Landing's DARE Pontiac, barreling up from the congestion at the end of the lane. Things seem to have reached the boiling point down there. Unless Wendell is wrong, he thinks he glimpses one of the bikers pulling a man out through the window of a nice-looking green Olds.

Time to call in the cavalry, for sure. Wendell steps back from the front of the building and waves to the troops. Teddy Runkleman yells, "Hoo boy!" Doodles screeches like a cat in heat, and Wendell's four assistants charge past him, making all the noise he could wish for.

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