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Bad Men (2003), Page 2

John Connolly

  A Gray Girl.

  The child is hungry, so very hungry. Sylvie digs her hands into the child’s scalp and her nails rake across her hair and skin. She tries to force her away, but the child is gripping her neck, holding her mouth against her own. She sees other vague shapes crowding behind, their lights gathering, drawn by the intensity of the Gray Girl’s hunger, although they do not share her appetites and are still kept back by their fear of her.

  Then, suddenly, the child’s mouth is no longer against hers, and the feel of the bones is gone. The lights are departing, and other lights are replacing them, these harsher than before, shedding true illumination. A man approaches her, and she thinks that she recognizes him from somewhere. He speaks her name:

  “Sylvie? Sylvie?”

  She hears sirens approaching.

  “Stay,” she whispers. She takes hold of his arm and draws him to her.

  “Stay,” she repeats. “They’ll come back.”

  “Who?” he says.

  “The dead ones,” she says. “The little girl.”

  She tries to spit the taste of the child from her mouth, and dust and blood dribble onto her chin. She begins to shake, and the man tries to hold her and comfort her, but she will not be comforted.

  “They were dead,” she says, “but they had lights. Why do the dead need light?”

  And the world turns to darkness, and she is finally given the answer that she seeks.

  The waves break on the shores of the island. Most of the houses are dark. No cars move on Island Avenue, the community’s main street. Later, when morning comes, the postmaster, Larry Amerling, will be at his desk, waiting for the mail boat to bring the first delivery of the day. Sam Tucker will open the Casco Bay Market and lay out the day’s baking of doughnuts and croissants and pastries. He will fill the coffee urns and greet by name those who drop in to fill up their travel cups before they take the ferry into Portland. Later, Nancy and Linda Tooker will open up the Dutch Diner for its traditional seven hours of business—seven until two, seven days a week—and those who can afford a more leisurely approach to life will wander down for breakfast and a little gossip, eating scrambled eggs and bacon as they look out of the windows and onto the little landing where Archie Thorson’s ferry arrives and departs with reasonable regularity and slightly less reasonable punctuality. As midday comes, Jeb Burris will transfer his attentions from the Black Duck Motel to the Rudder Bar, although in winter neither business places great demands upon his time. Thursday to Saturday, Good Eats, the island’s sole restaurant, opens for dinner, and Dale Zimmer, the chef and owner, will be down at the landing negotiating prices for lobster and fish. Trucks will leave Jaffe Construction, the island’s biggest employer (with a total of twenty employees), to deal with Covey Jaffe’s current slate of jobs, ranging from house construction to boat repair, Covey being a man who prides himself on the flexibility of his workforce. This being early January, school is still out, so Dutch Island Elementary remains closed, and the older kids will not be taking up space on the ferry to the mainland schools. Instead, some of them will be thinking up new ways to make mischief, new places in which to smoke pot and screw, preferably far from the eyes of their parents or the police. Most will not yet know of the deaths of Wayne Cady and Sylvie Lauter, and when they learn of the accident the next morning, and its impact sinks in, there may be fears of reprisals from the adult community in the form of parental constraints and increased police vigilance. But in the first moments there will be only shock and tears; boys will remember how they lusted after Sylvie Lauter, and girls will recall with something like affection Wayne Cady’s adolescent fumblings. Bottles will be raised in secret, and young men and women will make their pilgrimages to the Cady and Lauter houses, standing in embarrassed silence as their elders hug one another in open grief.

  But for now, the only light that burns on Island Avenue, with the exception of the island’s twelve (count ’em) street lamps, can be found in the Dutch Island Municipal Building, home to the fire department, the library, and the police department. A man sits slumped in a chair in the small office that constitutes the home of Dutch Island’s police force. His name is Sherman Lockwood, and he is one of the policemen from Portland on permanent roster for island duty. He still has Sylvie Lauter’s blood on his hands and his uniform, and glass from the shattered windshield of the car is caught in the treads of his boots. A cup of coffee lies cold before him. He wants to cry, but he will hold it inside until he returns to the mainland, where he will awaken his still-sleeping wife by pressing his face to her skin and holding her tightly as the sobs shudder through him. He has a daughter Sylvie Lauter’s age, and his greatest nightmare is that someday he may be forced to look upon her as he looked upon Sylvie this night, the promise that her life held now given the lie by her death. He holds out his hand, and the light from the desk lamp shows up the blood still caught beneath his nails and in the wrinkles of his knuckles. He could go back to the bathroom and try to remove the last traces of her, but the porcelain sink is speckled with red and he thinks that if he looks upon those marks, he will lose control of himself. And so Sherman balls his hands into fists, eases them into the pockets of his jacket, and tries to stop his body from trembling.

  Through the window, Sherman can see a great shape silhouetted against the stars. It is the figure of a man, a man perhaps eighteen inches taller than he is, a man immeasurably stronger, and immeasurably sadder, than Sherman. Sherman is not a native of Dutch Island. He was born and raised in Biddeford, a little south of Portland, and he and his wife still live there, along with their two children. The loss of Sylvie Lauter and her boyfriend, Wayne, is terrible and painful to him, but he has not watched them grow as the man beyond the window has. Sherman is not a part of this tightly knit community. He is an outsider, and it will always be this way.

  And yet the giant too is an outsider. His great bulk, his awkwardness, the memories of too many taunts delivered, too many whispers endured have made him one. He was born here and he will die here without ever truly believing that he belongs. Sherman decides that he will join the giant in a moment. Not just yet, though.

  Not just yet.

  The giant’s head is slightly raised, as if he can still hear the sound of the Portland Fire Department boat departing, taking the bodies of Sylvie and Wayne back to the mainland for autopsy. In a couple of days’ time, the islanders will gather at the main cemetery to watch the coffins as they are lowered silently into the ground. Sylvie and Wayne will be buried close by each other after a joint service out of the island’s little Baptist church. Much of the entire winter population will gather, along with media and relatives and friends from the mainland. Five hundred people will walk from the church to the cemetery, and afterward there will be coffee and sandwiches at the American Legion post, with maybe something a little stronger for those who need it most.

  And the giant will be among the mourners, and he will grieve with them, and he will wonder.

  For he has been told the girl’s last words, and he feels unaccountably afraid.

  The dead ones.

  They were dead, but they had lights.

  Why do the dead need light?

  But for now the island is quiet once again. It is Dutch Island on the maps, a tiny oval one-and-a-half-hour’s ferry ride from Portland, far out in Casco Bay on the margin of the outer ring of islands. It is Dutch Island to those who have only recently come here to live, for the island has attracted its share of new residents who no longer wish to stay, or can no longer afford to stay, on the mainland. It is Dutch Island to the reporters who will cover the funeral; Dutch Island to the legislators who will determine its future; Dutch Island to the real estate salesmen driving up property prices; and Dutch Island to the summer visitors who come to its shores each year for a day, a week, a month, without ever really understanding its true nature.

  But others still speak of it by its old name, the name the first settlers, the people of Moloch’s dream, gave to it before t
hey were slaughtered. They called it Sanctuary, and the island is still Sanctuary to Larry Amerling, and Sam Tucker, and old Thorson, and a handful of others, but usually only when they speak of it among themselves; and they say its name with a kind of reverence, and perhaps just a hint of fear.

  It is Sanctuary to the giant too, for his father told him of its history, just as his father told it to him, and similarly back and back again, far into the lost generations of the giant’s family. Few outsiders know this, but the giant owns whole sections of the island, bought by his family when nobody wanted to own this land, when even the state was turning down the opportunity to buy islands in Casco Bay. Their stewardship of the land is one of the reasons the island remains unspoiled, and why its heritage is so diligently protected, its memories so carefully stored. The giant knows that the island is special and so he calls it Sanctuary, like all those who recognize their duty toward this place.

  And perhaps it is still Sanctuary also to the young boy who stands amid the breaking waves at Pine Cove, staring out to sea. He does not appear to heed the cold, and the force of the waves does not make him rock back on his heels when they break, nor threaten to suck his feet from their anchorage beneath the surface. His clothes are rough cotton, apart from the heavy cowhide jacket that his mother made for him, hand-stitching it by the fire while he watched patiently, day after day.

  The boy’s face is very pale, and his eyes are dark and empty. He feels as though he has awakened from a long sleep. He brushes his fingers gently against the bruises on his face, where the grip of the man left its imprint upon him, then touches the memory of the wound on his throat left by the passage of the knife. His fingertips are heavily grooved, as if by time spent in the water.

  For the boy, as for the island, there is no past; there is only the eternal present. He looks behind him, and sees movement in the forest, the shapes drifting among the trees. Their wait is almost over, just as his unspoken promise is about to be fulfilled.

  He turns back to the sea and resumes his unblinking watch upon the waiting world beyond.

  The First Day

  They asked again what was my name,

  They asked again what was my name.

  And two were dead before they could move,

  Two were dead before they could move.

  I said, “That’s my name. That’s my name,

  If you please…”

  —“Outlaw Song” (traditional)

  Chapter One

  The giant knelt down and watched the gull’s beak open and close. The bird’s neck was twisted at an unnatural angle and in its single visible eye he saw himself reflected and distorted, his brow shrunken, his nose huge and bulging, his mouth tiny and lost in the folds of his chin. He hung suspended in the blackness of the bird’s pupil, a pale moon pendent in a dark, starless sky, and his pain and that of the gull were one. A dry beech leaf fell from a branch above and performed joyful cartwheels across the grass, tumbling tip over stem as the wind carried it away, almost touching the gull’s feathers as it passed. The bird, lost in its agony, paid it no heed. Above its head, the giant’s hand hovered, the promise of mortality and mercy in its grasp.

  “What’s wrong with it?” said the boy. He had just turned six, and had been living on the island for almost a year. In all that time, he had yet to see a dying animal, until now.

  “Its neck is broken,” said the giant.

  The wind rolling in off the Atlantic tousled his hair and flattened his jacket against his back. Within sight of where he squatted, the eastern shore of the island began its steep descent to the ocean. There were rocks down there, but no beach. The old painter, Giacomelli, kept a boat in the shelter of a glade close by the shore, although he used it only occasionally. In the summer, when the sea was calmer, he could sometimes be seen out on the water, a line trailing from the boat. The giant wasn’t sure if Giacomelli, or Jack, as most islanders called him, ever caught anything, but then he guessed that catching things wasn’t the point for Jack. The painter rarely even bothered to bait the hooks, and if a fish was foolish enough to impale itself on a barb, Jack would usually unhook it and cast it back into the sea, assuming he even noticed the tug on the line. Fishing was merely his alibi, an excuse to take the boat out on the waves. The old man was always making sketches while the line dangled unthreateningly, his hand working quickly with charcoals as he added another perspective to his seemingly endless series of representations of the landscape.

  There weren’t too many people living over on this side of the island. It was too exposed for some. Sheep sorrel, horseweed, and highbush blackberry colonized patches of waste or open ground, but mostly it was just trees, the island’s forest petering out as it drew closer to the cliffs. In fact, this was maybe the closest thing to a concentration of houses over on the eastern shore, the boy and his mother in one, Jack in another, Bonnie Claeson just over the rise to the north, and a sprinkling of others within reasonable walking distance. The view was good, though, as long as one didn’t mind looking at empty sea.

  The boy’s voice called him back.

  “Can you help it? Can you make it better?”

  “No,” said the giant. He wondered how the bird had ended up here, lying in the middle of a patch of lawn with its neck broken. He thought he saw its open beak move feebly, and its tiny tongue flick at the grass. It might have been attacked by an animal or another bird, although there were no marks upon it. The giant looked around but could see no other signs of life. No gulls glided. There were no starlings, no chickadees. There was only this single, dying gull, alone of its kind.

  The boy knelt down and stretched out a finger to prod the bird, but the giant’s hand caught it before it could make contact, engulfing it in his palm.

  “Don’t do that,” he said.

  The boy looked at him. There was no pity in his face, thought the giant. There was only curiosity. But if there was not pity, then neither was there understanding. The boy was just too young to understand, and that was why the giant loved him.

  “Why?” said the boy. “Why can’t I touch it?”

  “Because it is in pain, and you will only increase that pain by touching it.”

  The boy considered this.

  “Can you make the pain go away?”

  “Yes,” said the giant.

  “Then do it.”

  The giant reached down with both hands, placing his left hand like a shell above the body of the gull, and the thumb and forefinger of his right hand at either side of its neck.

  “I think maybe you should look away,” he told the boy.

  The boy shook his head. Instead, his eyes were focused on the giant’s hands and the soft, warm body of the bird enclosed within their ambit.

  “I have to do this,” said the giant. His thumb and forefinger moved in unison, gripping the bird’s neck and simultaneously pulling and twisting. The gull’s head was wrenched one hundred and eighty degrees, and its pain was brought to an end.

  Instantly, the boy began to cry.

  “What did you do?” he wailed. “What did you do?”

  The giant rose and made as if to grip the boy’s shoulder, but the boy backed away from him, fearful now of the power in those great hands.

  “I put it out of its misery,” said the giant. He was already realizing his mistake in euthanizing the bird while the boy was watching, but he had no experience in dealing with one so young. “It was the only thing that I could do.”

  “No, you killed it. You killed it!”

  The giant’s hand retreated.

  “Yes,” he said. “I did. It was in pain and it could not be saved. Sometimes, all that you can do is take away the pain.”

  But the boy was already running back to the house, back to his mother, and the wind carried his cries to the giant as he stood on their neatly trimmed lawn. Gently, he cupped the dead gull in his right hand and carried it away to the treeline, where he dug a small hole with the edge of a stone and covered the little thing in earth and lea
ves, placing the stone at last upon the mound. When he rose again, the boy’s mother was walking toward him across the lawn, the boy clinging to her, shielded by her body.

  “I didn’t know you were out here,” she said. She was trying to smile, both embarrassed and alarmed by her son’s distress.

  “I was passing,” said the giant. “I thought I’d drop in, see how you were. Then I saw Danny crouching on the grass, and went over to see what was the matter. There was a gull, a dying gull. I—”

  The boy interrupted.

  “What did you do with it?”

  His cheeks were streaked with the marks of his tears and his grubby-fingered efforts to wipe them away.

  The giant looked down upon him. “I buried it,” he said. “Over there. I marked the place with a stone.”

  The boy released his hold upon his mother and walked toward the trees, his eyes grave with suspicion, as if he were convinced that the giant had somehow spirited the bird away for his own dark ends. When his eyes found the stone he stood before the gull’s resting place, his hands hanging loosely by his sides. With the tip of his right foot he tested the earth, half hoping to reveal a small swath of feathers, darkened with dirt now like a discarded wedding gown, but the giant had buried the bird deep and no trace of it was made visible to him.

  “It couldn’t be saved?” asked his mother.

  “No,” said the giant. “Its neck was broken.”

  She spotted the boy and saw what he was doing. “Danny, come away from there.”

  He walked back to her, still refusing to look the giant in the eye, until he was once again by his mother’s side. Her arm gripped the shoulder of the boy, and she pulled him closer to her.

  “There was nothing anybody could do, Danny. The bird was sick. Joe did the right thing.”

  Then, in a whisper to the giant, she added: “I wish he hadn’t seen you kill it. You maybe should have waited until he was gone.”