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Dark Hollow

John Connolly

  Dark Hollow

  John Connolly

  Grieving over the murder of his family, private detective Charlie "Bird" Parker returns to Maine in search of refuge, and becomes caught up in the murders of a young mother and her child, a crime that could be linked to the troubled history of Parker's own grandfather.

  John Connolly

  Dark Hollow

  The second book in the Charlie Parker series, 2000

  For my father


  "Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood

  Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,

  Dreading to find its Father."

  – W. H. Auden, For the Time Being


  I dream dark dreams.

  I dream of a figure moving through the forest, of children flying from his path, of young women crying at his coming. I dream of snow and ice, of bare branches and moon-cast shadows. I dream of dancers floating in the air, stepping lightly even in death, and my own pain is but a faint echo of their suffering as I run. My blood is black on the snow, and the edges of the world are silvered with moonlight. I run into the darkness, and he is waiting.

  I dream in black and white, and I dream of him.

  I dream of Caleb, who does not exist, and I am afraid.

  The Dodge Intrepid stood beneath a stand of firs, its windshield facing out to sea, the lights off, the key in the ignition to keep the heater running. No snow had fallen this far south, not yet, but there was frost on the ground. From nearby came the sound of the waves breaking on Ferry Beach, the only noise to disturb the stillness of this Maine winter night. A floating jetty bobbed close to the shore, lobster pots piled high upon it. Four boats lay shrouded in tarpaulin behind the red wooden boathouse, and a catamaran was tied down close to the public access boat ramp. Otherwise, the parking lot was empty.

  The passenger door opened and Chester Nash climbed quickly into the car, his teeth chattering and his long brown coat drawn tightly around him. Chester was small and wiry, with long dark hair and a sliver of a mustache on his upper lip that stretched down beyond the corners of his mouth. He thought the mustache made him look dashing. Everyone else thought it made him look mournful, thus the nickname "Cheerful Chester." If there was one thing guaranteed to make Chester Nash mad, it was people calling him Cheerful Chester. He had once stuck his gun in Paulie Block's mouth for calling him Cheerful Chester. Paulie Block had almost ripped his arm off for doing it, although, as he explained to Cheerful Chester while he slapped him repeatedly across the head with hands as big as shovels, he understood the reason why Chester had done it. Reasons just didn't excuse everything, that was all.

  "I hope you washed your hands," said Paulie Block, who sat in the driver's seat of the Dodge, maybe wondering why Chester couldn't have taken a leak earlier like any normal individual instead of insisting on pissing against a tree in the woods by the shore and letting all of the heat out of the car while he did it.

  "Man, it's cold," said Chester. "This is the coldest goddamn place I have ever been in my whole goddamn life. My meat nearly froze out there. Any colder, I'da pissed ice cubes."

  Paulie Block took a long drag on his cigarette and watched as the tip flared briefly red before returning to gray ash. Paulie Block was aptly named. He was six-three, weighed two-eighty and had a face that looked like it had been used to shunt trains. He made the interior of the car look cramped just by being there. All things considered, Paulie Block could have made Giants Stadium look cramped just by being there.

  Chester glanced at the digital clock on the dash, the green numerals seeming to hang suspended in the dark.

  "They're late," he said.

  "They'll be here," said Paulie. "They'll be here."

  He returned to his cigarette and stared out to sea. He probably didn't look too hard. There was nothing to be seen, just blackness and the lights of Old Orchard Beach beyond. Beside him, Chester Nash began playing with a Game Boy.

  Outside, the wind blew and the waves washed rhythmically on the beach, and the sound of their voices carried over the cold ground to where others were watching, and listening.

  "…Subject Two is back in vehicle. Man, it's cold," said FBI Special Agent Dale Nutley, unconsciously repeating the words that he had just heard Chester Nash speak. A parabolic microphone stood beside him, positioned close to a small gap in the wall of the boathouse. Next to it, a voice-activated Nagra tape recorder whirred softly and a Badger Mk II low-light camera kept a vigil on the Dodge.

  Nutley wore two pairs of socks, long johns, denims, a T-shirt, a cotton shirt, a wool sweater, a Lowe ski jacket, thermal gloves and a gray alpaca hat with two little flaps that hung down over the headphones and kept his ears warm. Special Agent Rob Briscoe, who sat beside him on a tall stool, thought the alpaca hat made Nutley look like a llama herder, or the lead singer with the Spin Doctors. Either way, Nutley looked like a clown in his alpaca hat, with its damn flaps to keep his ears warm. Agent Briscoe, whose ears were very cold, wanted that alpaca hat. If it got any colder, he figured he might just have to kill Dale Nutley and take the hat from his dead head.

  The boathouse stood to the right of the Ferry Beach parking lot, giving its occupants a clear view of the Dodge. Behind it, a private road followed the shore, leading to one of the summer houses below the Neck. From the lot, Ferry Road snaked back to Black Point Road, leading ultimately to Oak Hill and U.S.1 to the north and the Neck to the southeast. The boathouse windows had received a reflective coating barely two hours before, in order to prevent anyone from seeing the agents inside. There had been a brief moment of apprehension when Chester Nash had peered in the window and tested the locks on the doors before running quickly back to the Dodge.

  Unfortunately, the boathouse had no heating, at least none that worked, and the FBI had not seen fit to provide the two special agents with a heater. As a result, Nutley and Briscoe were about as cold as they had ever been. The bare boards of the boathouse were icy to the touch.

  "How long we been here?" asked Nutley.

  "Two hours," replied Briscoe.

  "You cold?"

  "What sort of a stupid question is that? I'm covered in frost. Of course I'm fucking cold."

  "Why didn't you bring a hat?" asked Nutley. "You know, you lose most of your body heat through the top of your head? You should have brought a hat. That's why you're cold. You should have brought a hat."

  "You know what, Nutley?" said Briscoe.

  "What?" said Nutley.

  "I hate you."

  Behind them, the Nagra whirred softly, recording the conversation of the two agents. Everything was to be recorded, that was the rule on this operation: everything. And if that included Briscoe's hatred of Nutley because of his alpaca hat, then so be it.

  The security guard, Oliver Judd, heard her before he saw her. Her feet made a heavy, shuffling noise on the carpeted floor and she was speaking softly to herself as she walked. Regretfully, he stood up in his booth and walked away from his TV and the heater that had been blasting warm air onto his toes. Outside, there was a kind of stillness that presaged further snow. There was no wind, though, which was something. It would soon get worse-December always did-but, this far north, it got worse sooner than it did anywhere else. Sometimes, living in northern Maine could be a bitch.

  He walked swiftly toward her. "Hey, lady, lady! What are you doing out of bed? You're gonna catch your death."

  The old woman started at the last word and looked at Judd for the first time. She was small and thin but carried herself straight, which gave her an imposing air among the other occupants of St. Martha's Home for the Elderly. Judd didn't think she was as old as some of the other folks in the home, who were so ancient that they'd bummed cigarettes from people who were later killed in Worl
d War I. This one, though, was maybe sixty at most. Judd figured that if she wasn't old then she was probably infirm, which meant, in layman's terms, that she was mad, plumb loco. Her hair was silver gray and hung loose over her shoulders and almost to her waist. Her eyes were bright blue and looked straight through Judd and off into the distance. She wore a pair of brown, lace-up boots, a nightgown, a red muffler and a long blue overcoat, which she was buttoning as she walked.

  "I'm leaving," she replied. She spoke quietly but with absolute determination, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary that a sixty-year-old woman should try to leave a home for the elderly in northern Maine wearing only a nightdress and a cheap coat on a night when the forecast promised more snow to add to the six inches that already lay frozen on the ground. Judd couldn't figure out how she had slipped past the nurses' station, still less almost to the main door of the building. Some of these old folks were cunning as foxes, Judd reckoned. Turn your back on them and they'd be gone, heading for the hills or their former homes or off to wed a lover who had died thirty years before.

  "Now you know you can't leave," said Judd. "Come on, you got to go back to bed. I'm going to call for a nurse now, so you stay where you are and we'll have someone down to take care of you before you know it."

  The old woman stopped buttoning her coat and looked again at Oliver Judd. It was then that Judd realized for the first time that she was scared: truly, mortally afraid for her life. He couldn't tell how he knew, except that maybe some kind of primitive sense had kicked in when she came near him. Her eyes were huge and pleading and her hands shook now that they were no longer occupied with her buttons. She was so scared that Judd began to feel a little nervous himself. Then the woman spoke.

  "He's coming," she said.

  "Who's coming?" asked Judd.

  "Caleb. Caleb Kyle is coming."

  The old woman's stare was almost hypnotic, her voice trembling with terror. Judd shook his head and took her by the arm.

  "Come on," he said, leading her to a vinyl seat beside his booth. "You sit down here while I call the nurse." Who in hell was Caleb Kyle? The name was almost familiar, but he couldn't quite place it.

  He was dialing the number for the nurses' station when he heard a noise from behind. He turned to see the woman almost on top of him, her eyes now narrow with concentration, her mouth set firmly. Her hands were raised above her head and he lifted his gaze to see what she was holding, his face rising just in time to see the heavy glass vase falling toward him.

  Then all was darkness.

  "I can't see a fucking thing," said Cheerful Chester Nash. The windows of the car had steamed up, giving Chester an uncomfortably claustrophobic feeling that the huge bulk of Paulie Block did nothing to ease, as he had just told his companion in no uncertain terms.

  Paulie leaned across Chester and wiped the side window with his sleeve. In the distance, headlights raked the sky.

  "Quiet," he said. "They're coming."

  * * *

  Nutley and Briscoe had also seen the headlights, minutes after Briscoe's radio had crackled into life to inform the agents that a car was on its way down Old County Road, heading in the direction of Ferry Beach.

  "You think it's them?" asked Nutley.

  "Maybe," replied Briscoe, brushing icy condensation from his jacket as the Ford Taurus emerged from Ferry Road and pulled up alongside the Dodge. Through their phones, the agents heard Paulie Block ask Cheerful Chester if he was ready to rumble. They heard only a click in response. Briscoe couldn't be certain, but he thought it was the sound of a safety clicking off.

  In St. Martha's Home for the Elderly, a nurse placed a cold compress on the side of Oliver Judd's head. Ressler, the sergeant out of Dark Hollow, stood by with a reserve patrolman, who was still laughing quietly to himself. There was the faintest trace of a fading smile on Ressler's lips. In another corner stood Dave Martel, the chief of police in Greenville, five miles south of Dark Hollow, and beside him one of the Fisheries and Wildlife wardens from the town.

  St. Martha's was technically in the jurisdiction of Dark Hollow, the last town before the big industrial forests began their sweep toward Canada. Still, Martel had heard about the old woman and had come to offer his help in the search if it was needed. He didn't like Ressler, but liking had nothing to do with whatever action needed to be taken.

  Martel, who was sharp, quiet and only Greenville 's third chief since the foundation of the town's small department, didn't see anything particularly funny about what had just happened. If they didn't find her soon, she would die. It didn't require too much cold to kill an old woman, and there was plenty to spare that night.

  Oliver Judd, who had always wanted to be a cop but was too short, too overweight and too dumb to make the grade, knew the Dark Hollow cops were laughing at him. He figured that they probably had a right to laugh. After all, what kind of security guard gets coldcocked by an old lady? An old lady, what's more, who now had Oliver Judd's new Smith & Wesson 625 somewhere on her person.

  The search team prepared to move off, headed by Dr. Martin Ryley, the director of the home. Ryley was wrapped up tightly in a hooded parka, gloves and insulated boots. In one hand he carried an emergency medical kit, in the other a big Maglite flashlight. At his feet lay a backpack containing warm clothing, blankets and a thermos filled with soup.

  "We didn't pass her on the way in here, so she's moving across country," Judd heard someone say. It sounded like Will Patterson, the warden, whose wife worked in a drugstore in Guilford and had an ass like a peach waiting to be bitten.

  "It's all hard going," said Ryley. "South is Beaver Cove, but Chief Martel didn't see her on his way up here. West is the lake. Looks like she may be just wandering aimlessly through the woods."

  Patterson's radio buzzed and he moved away to talk. Almost immediately, he turned back. "Plane's spotted her. She's about one mile northeast of here, moving farther into the forest."

  The two Dark Hollow cops and the warden, accompanied by Ryley and a nurse, moved off, one of the cops shouldering the backpack of clothing and blankets. Chief Martel looked at Judd and shrugged. Ressler didn't want his help, and Martel wasn't about to stick his nose in where it wasn't wanted, but he had a bad feeling about what was happening, a very bad feeling. As he watched the group of five heading into the trees, the first small flurries of snow began to fall.

  * * *

  "Ho Chi Minh," said Cheerful Chester. "Pol Pot. Lychee."

  The four Cambodians looked at him coldly. They wore matching blue wool overcoats, blue suits with somber ties, and black leather gloves on their hands. Three were young, probably no more than twenty-five or twenty-six, Paulie reckoned. The other was older, with strands of gray seeping through his slicked-back dark hair. He wore glasses and smoked an unfiltered cigarette. In his left hand, he held a black leather briefcase.

  "Tet. Chairman Mao. Nagasaki," continued Cheerful Chester.

  "Will you shut up?" said Paulie Block.

  "I'm trying to make them feel at home."

  The senior Cambodian took a last drag on his cigarette and flicked it toward the beach.

  "When your friend is finished making a fool of himself, perhaps we can begin?" he said.

  "See," said Paulie Block to Cheerful Chester. "That's how wars start."

  "That Chester sure is an asshole," said Nutley. The conversation between the six men carried clearly to them in the chill night air. Briscoe nodded in agreement. Beside him, Nutley adjusted the camera to zoom in on the case in the Cambodian's hand, clicked off a frame, then pulled back a little to take in Paulie Block, the Cambodian and the case. Their brief was to watch, listen and record. No interference. The interference part would come later, as soon as all of this-whatever "this" was, since all they had was the meeting point-could be traced back to Tony Celli in Boston. Two cars were waiting to pick up the Dodge at Oak Hill, while a third was positioned behind the Scarborough fire department in case either of the targets took the Spurwink Road to South Por
tland. A second pair of cars would follow the Cambodians. In addition, there was backup available from the police at both Scarborough and Portland, if required. Still, it was Nutley and Briscoe on point, and they knew it.

  Briscoe picked up a Night Hawk scope and trained it on Cheerful Chester Nash.

  "You see anything unusual about Chester 's coat?" he said.

  Nutley moved the camera a little to the left.

  "No," he said. "Wait. It looks like it's fifty years old. He doesn't have his hands in his pockets. He's got them in those slits below the breast. Pretty awkward way to keep warm, don't you think."

  "Yeah," said Briscoe. "Real awkward."

  "Where is she?" said the Cambodian to Paulie Block.

  Paulie gestured to the trunk of the car. The Cambodian nodded and handed the briefcase to one of his associates. The case was flicked open and the Cambodian held it, facing forward, so that Paulie and Chester could see what was inside.

  Chester whistled. "Shit," he said.

  "Shit," said Nutley. "There's a lot of cash in that case."

  Briscoe trained the scope on the notes. "Ouch. We're talking maybe two mil."

  "Enough to buy Tony Celli out of whatever jam he's in," said Nutley.

  "And then some."

  "But who's in the trunk?" asked Nutley.

  "Well, son, that's what we're here to find out."

  The group of five moved carefully over the hard ground, their breath puffing white as they went. Around them, the tips of evergreens scraped the sky and welcomed the flakes with their spread branches. The ground here was rocky, and the new snow had made it slick and dangerous. Ryley had already stumbled once, painfully scraping his shin. In the sky above them, they could hear the sound of the Cessna's engine, one of Currier's planes from Moose head Lake, and could see its spotlight picking out something on the ground ahead of them.