Crouch End nad-17Stephen King
( Nightmares and Dreamscapes - 17 )
By the time the woman had finally gone, it was nearly two-thirty in the morning. Outside the Crouch End police station, Tottenham Lane was a small dead river. London was asleep… but London never sleeps deeply, and its dreams are uneasy.
PC Vetter closed his notebook, which he’d almost filled as the American woman’s strange, frenzied story poured out. He looked at the typewriter and the stack of blank forms on the shelf beside it. ‘This one’ll look odd come morning light,’ he said.
PC Farnham was drinking a Coke. He didn’t speak for a long time. ‘She was American, wasn’t she?’ he said finally, as if that might explain most or all of the story she had told. ‘It’ll go in the back file,’ Vetter agreed, and looked round for a cigarette. ‘But I wonder…’
Farnham laughed. ‘You don’t mean you believe any part of it? Go on, sir! Pull the other one!’
‘Didn’t say that, did I? No. But you’re new here.’
Farnham sat a little straighter. He was twenty-seven, and it was hardly his fault that he had been posted here from Muswell Hill to the north, or that Vetter, who was nearly twice his age, had spent his entire uneventful career in the quiet London backwater of Crouch End. ‘Perhaps so, sir,’ lie said, ‘but – with respect, mind – I still think I know a swatch of the old whole cloth when I see one… or hear one.’
‘Give us a fag, mate,’ Vetter said, looking amused. ‘There!
What a good boy you are.’ He lit it with a wooden match from a bright red railway box, shook it out, and tossed the match stub into Farnham’s ashtray. He peered at the lad through a haze of drifting smoke. His own days of laddie good looks were long gone; Vetter’s face was deeply lined and his nose was a map of broken veins. He liked his six of Harp a night, did PC Vetter. ‘You think Crouch End’s a very quiet place, then, do you?’
Farnham shrugged. In truth he thought Crouch End was a big suburban yawn – what his younger brother would have been pleased to call ‘a fucking Bore-a-Torium.’ ‘Yes,’ Vetter said, ‘I see you do. And you’re right. Goes to sleep by eleven most nights, it does. But I’ve seen a lot of strange things in Crouch End. If you’re here half as long as I’ve been, you’ll see your share, too. There are more strange things happen right here in this quiet six or eight blocks than anywhere else in London – that’s saying a lot, I know, but I believe it. It scares me. So I have my lager, and then I’m not so scared. You look at Sergeant Gordon sometime, Farnham, and ask yourself why his hair is dead white at forty. Or I’d say take a look at Petty, but you can’t very well, can you? Petty committed suicide in the summer of 1976. Our hot summer. It was…’ Vetter seemed to consider his words. ‘It was quite bad that summer. Quite bad. There ere a lot of us who were afraid they might break through.’
‘Who might break through what?’ Farnham asked. He felt a contemptuous smile turning up the corners of his mouth, knew it was far from politic, but was unable to stop it. In his way, Vetter was raving as badly as the American woman had. He had always been a bit queer. The booze, probably. Then he saw Vetter was smiling right back at him.
‘You think I’m a dotty old prat, I suppose,’ he said. ’Not at all, not at all,’ Farnham protested, groaning inwardly.
‘You’re a good boy,’ Vetter said. ‘Won’t be riding a desk here in the station when you’re my age. Not if you stick on the force. Will you stick, d’you think? D’you fancy it?’ ‘Yes,’ Farnham said. It was true; he did fancy it. He meant to stick even though Sheila wanted him off the police force and somewhere she could count on him. The Ford assembly line, perhaps. The thought of joining the wankers at Ford curdled his stomach.
‘I thought so,’ Vetter said, crushing his smoke. ‘Gets in your blood, doesn’t it? You could go far, too, and it wouldn’t be boring old Crouch End you’d finish up in, either. Still, you don’t know everything. Crouch End is strange. You ought to have a peek in the back file sometime, Farnham. Oh, a lot of it’s the usual… girls and boys run away from home to be hippies or punks or whatever it is they call themselves now… husbands gone missing (and when you clap an eye to their wives you can most times understand why)… unsolved arsons… purse-snatchings… all of that. But in between, there’s enough stories to curdle your blood. And some to make you sick to your stomach.’
Vetter nodded. ‘Some of em very like the one that poor American girl just told us. She’ll not see her husband again – take my word for it.’ He looked at Farnham and shrugged. ‘Believe me, believe me not. It’s all one, isn’t it? The file’s there. We call it the open file because it’s more polite than the back file or the kiss-my-arse file. Study it up, Farnham. Study it up.’ Farnham said nothing, but he actually did intend to ‘study it up.’ The idea that there might be a whole series of stories such as the one the American woman had told… that was disturbing. ‘Sometimes,’ Vetter said, stealing another of Farnham’s Silk Cuts, ‘I wonder about Dimensions.’
‘Yes, my good old son – dimensions. Science fiction writers are always on about Dimensions, aren’t they? Ever read science fiction, Farnham?’
‘No,’ Farnham said. He had decided this was some sort of elaborate leg-pull.
‘What about Lovecraft? Ever read anything by him?’
‘Never heard of him,’ Farnham said. The last fiction he’d read for pleasure, in fact, had been a small Victorian Era pastiche called Two Gentlemen in Silk Knickers. ‘Well, this fellow Lovecraft was always writing about Dimensions,’ Vetter said, producing his box of railway matches. ‘Dimensions close to ours. Full of these immortal monsters that would drive a man mad at one look. Frightful rubbish, of course. Except, whenever one of these people straggles in, I wonder if all of it was rubbish. I think to myself then – when it’s quiet and late at night, like now – that our whole world, everything we think of as nice and normal and sane, might be like a big leather ball filled with air. Only in some places, the leather’s scuffed almost down to nothing. Places where the barriers are thinner. Do you get me?’ ‘Yes,’ Farnham said, and thought: Maybe you ought to give me a kiss, Vetter – I always fancy a kiss when I’m getting my doodle pulled.
‘And then I think, ‘Crouch End’s one of those thin places. Silly, but I do have those thoughts.
Too imaginative, I expect; my mother always said so, anyway.’
‘Did she indeed?’
‘Yes. Do you know what else I think?’
‘No, sir – not a clue.’
‘Highgate’s mostly all right, that’s what I think – it’s just as thick as you’d want between us and the Dimensions in Muswell Hill and Highgate. But now you take Archway and Finsbury Park. They border on Crouch End, too. I’ve got friends in both places, and they know of my interest in certain things that don’t seem to be any way rational. Certain crazy stories which have been told, we’ll say, by people with nothing to gain by making up crazy stories. ‘Did it occur to you to wonder, Farnham, why the woman would have told us the things she did if they weren’t true?’
Vetter struck a match and looked at Farnham over it. ‘Pretty young woman, twenty-six, two kiddies back at her hotel, husband’s a young lawyer doing well in Milwaukee or someplace. What’s she to gain by coming in and spouting about the sort of things you only used to see in Hammer films?’
‘I don’t know,’ Farnham said stiffly. ‘But there may be an ex…’
‘So I say to myself’ – Vetter overrode him – ‘that if there are such things as ‘thin spots,’ this one would begin at Archway and Finsbury Park�
� but the very thinnest part is here at Crouch End. And I say to myself, wouldn’t it be a day if the last of the leather between us and what’s on the inside that ball just… rubbed away? Wouldn’t it be a day if even half of what that woman told us was true?’
Farnham was silent. He had decided that PC Vetter probably also believed in palmistry and phrenology and the Rosicrucians.
‘Read the back file,’ Vetter said, getting up. There was a crackling sound as he put his hands in the small of his back and stretched. ‘I’m going out to get some fresh air.’ He strolled out. Farnham looked after him with a mixture of amusement and resentment. Vetter was dotty, all right. He was also a bloody fag-mooch. Fags didn’t come cheap in this brave new world of the welfare state. He picked up Vetter’s notebook and began leafing through the girl’s story again.
And, yes, he would go through the back file.
He would do it for laughs.
The girl – or young woman, if you wanted to be politically correct (and all Americans did these days, it seemed) – had burst into the station at quarter past ten the previous evening, her hair in damp strings around her face, her eyes bulging. She was dragging her purse by the strap. ‘Lonnie,’ she said. ‘Please, you’ve got to find Lonnie.’
‘Well, we’ll do our best, won’t we?’ Vetter said. ‘But you’ve got to tell us who Lonnie is.’ ‘He’s dead,’ the young woman said. ‘I know he is.’ She began to cry. Then she began to laugh – to cackle, really. She dropped her purse in front of her. She was hysterical.
The station was fairly deserted at that hour on a weeknight. Sergeant Raymond was listening to a Pakistani woman tell, with almost unearthly calm, how her purse had been nicked on Hillfield Avenue by a yob with a lot of football tattoos and a great coxcomb of blue hair. Vetter saw Farnham come in from the anteroom, where he had been taking down old posters (HAVE YOU ROOM IN YOUR HEART FOR AN UNWANTED CHILD?) and putting up new ones (SIX RULES FOR SAFE NIGHT-CYCLING).
Vetter waved Farnham forward and Sergeant Raymond, who had looked round at once when he heard the American woman’s semi-hysterical voice, back. Raymond, who liked breaking pickpockets’ fingers like breadsticks (‘Aw, c’mon, mate,’ he’d say if asked to justify this extra-legal proceeding, ‘fifty million wogs can’t be wrong’), was not the man for a hysterical woman.
‘Lonnie!’ she shrieked. ‘Oh, please, they’ve got Lonnie!’. The Pakistani woman turned toward the young American woman, studied her calmly for a moment, then turned back to Sergeant Raymond and continued to tell him how her purse had been snatched.
‘Miss…’ PC Farnham began.
‘What’s going on out there?’ she whispered. Her breath was coming in quick pants. Farnham noticed there was a slight scratch on her left cheek. She was a pretty little hen with nice bubs – small but pert – and a great cloud of auburn hair. Her clothes were moderately expensive. The heel had come off one of her shoes.
‘What’s going on out there?’ she repeated. ‘Monsters…’
The Pakistani woman looked over again… and smiled. Her teeth were rotten. The smile was gone like a conjurer’s trick, and she took the Lost and Stolen Property form Raymond was holding out to her.
‘Get the lady a cup of coffee and bring it down to Room Three,’ Vetter said. ‘Could you do with a cup of coffee, love?’
‘Lonnie,’ she whispered. ‘I know he’s dead.’
‘Now, you just come along with old Ted Vetter and we’ll sort this out in a jiff,’ he said, and helped her to her feet. She was still talking in a low moaning voice when he led her away with one arm snugged around her waist. She was rocking unsteadily because of the broken shoe. Farnham got the coffee and brought it into Room Three, a plain white cubicle furnished with a scarred table, four chairs, and a water cooler in the corner. He put the coffee in front of her.
‘Here, love,’ he said, ‘this’ll do you good. I’ve got some sugar if…’
‘I can’t drink it,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t…’ And then she clutched the porcelain cup, someone’s long-forgotten souvenir of Blackpool, in her hands as if for warmth. Her hands were shaking quite badly, and Farnham wanted to tell her to put it down before she slopped the coffee and scalded herself.
‘I couldn’t,’ she said again. Then she drank, still holding the cup two-handed, the way a child will hold his cup of broth. And when she looked at them, it was a child’s look – simple, ex-hausted, appealing… and at bay, somehow. It was as if whatever had happened had somehow shocked her young; as if some invisible hand had swooped down from the sky and slapped the last twenty years out of her, leaving a child in grownup American clothes in this small white interrogation room in Crouch End.
‘Lonnie,’ she said. ‘The monsters,’ she said. ‘Will you help me? Will you please help me?
Maybe he isn’t dead. Maybe…
‘I’m an American citizen!’ she cried suddenly, and then, as if she had said something deeply shameful, she began to sob.
Vetter patted her shoulder. ‘There, love. I think we can help find your Lonnie. Your husband, is he?’
Still sobbing, she nodded. ‘Danny and Norma are back at the hotel… with the sitter… they’ll be sleeping… expecting him to kiss them when we come in…’
‘Now if you could just relax and tell us what happened…’
‘And where it happened,’ Farnham added. Vetter looked up at him swiftly, frowning. ‘But that’s just it!’ she cried. ‘I don’t know where it happened! I’m not even sure what happened, except that it was h-huh-horrible.’
Vetter had taken out his notebook. ‘What’s your name, love?’
‘Doris Freeman. My husband is Leonard Freeman. We’re staying at the Hotel Inter-Continental. We’re American citizens.’ This time the statement of nationality actually seemed to steady her a little. She sipped her coffee and put the mug down. Farnham saw that the palms of her hands were quite red. You’ll feel that later, dearie, he thought. Vetter was drudging it all down in his notebook. Now he looked momentarily at PC Farnham, just an unobtrusive flick of the eyes.
‘Are you on holiday?’ he asked.
‘Yes… two weeks here and one in Spain. We were supposed to have a week in Barcelona… but this isn’t helping find Lonnie! Why are you asking me these stupid questions?’ ‘Just trying to get the background, Mrs. Freeman,’ Farnham said. Without really thinking about it, both of them had adopted low, soothing voices. ‘Now you go ahead and tell us what happened. Tell it in your own words.’
‘Why is it so hard to get a taxi in London?’ she asked abruptly. Farnham hardly knew what to say, but Vetter responded as if the question were utterly germane to the discussion.
‘Hard to say. Tourists, partly. Why? Did you have trouble getting someone who’d take you out here to Crouch End?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘We left the hotel at three and came down to Hatchard’s Bookshop. Is that Haymarket?’
‘Near to,’ Vetter agreed. ‘Lovely big bookshop, love, isn’t it?’
‘We had no trouble getting a cab from the Inter-Continental… they were lined up outside. But when we came out of Hatchard’s, there was nothing. Finally, when one did stop, the driver just laughed and shook his head when Lonnie said we wanted to go to Crouch End.’ ‘Aye, they can be right barstards about the suburbs, beggin your pardon, love,’ Farnham said. ‘He even refused a pound tip,’ Doris Freeman said, and a very American perplexity had crept into her tone. ‘We waited for almost half an hour before we got a driver who said he’d take us. It was five-thirty by then, maybe quarter of six. And that was when Lonnie discovered he’d lost the address…’
She clutched the mug again.
‘Who were you going to see?’ Vetter asked.
‘A colleague of my husband’s. A lawyer named John Squales. My husband hadn’t met him, but their two firms were…’ She gestured vaguely.
‘Yes, I suppose. When Mr. Squales found out we were going to be in London on vacation, he invited us to his
home for dinner. Lonnie had always written him at his office, of course, but he had Mr. Squales’s home address on a slip of paper. After we got in the cab, he discovered he’d lost it. And all he could remember was that it was in Crouch End.’ She looked at them solemnly.
‘Crouch End – I think that’s an ugly name.’
Vetter said, ‘So what did you do then?’
She began to talk. By the time she’d finished, her first cup of coffee and most of another were gone, and PC Vetter had filled up several pages of his notebook with his blocky, sprawling script.
Lonnie Freeman was a big man, and hunched forward in the roomy back seat of the black cab so he could talk to the driver, he looked to her amazingly as he had when she’d first seen him at a college basketball game in their senior year – sitting on the bench, his knees somewhere up around his ears, his hands on their big wrists dangling between his legs. Only then he had been wearing basketball shorts and a towel slung around his neck, and now he was in a suit and tie. He had never gotten in many games, she remembered fondly, because he just wasn’t that good. And he lost addresses.
The cabby listened indulgently to the tale of the lost address. He was an elderly man impeccably turned out in a gray summer-weight suit, the antithesis of the slouching New York cabdriver. Only the checked wool cap on the driver’s head clashed, but it was an agreeable clash; it lent him a touch of rakish charm. Outside, the traffic flowed endlessly past on Haymarket; the theater nearby announced that The Phantom of the Opera was continuing its apparently endless run.
‘Well, I tell you what, guv,’ the cabby said. ‘I’ll take yer there to Crouch End, and we’ll stop at a call box, and you check your governor’s address, and off we go, right to the door.’ ‘That’s wonderful,’ Doris said, really meaning it. They had been in London six days now, and she could not recall ever having been in a place where the people were kinder or more civilized. ‘Thanks,’ Lonnie said, and sat back. He put his arm around Doris and smiled. ‘See? No problem.’