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Black House js-2, Page 2

Stephen King

  Mirth suffuses Tom Lund’s bland face. That George Rathbun, man, he’s a hoot. Bobby says, “Come on, okay?”

  Grinning, Lund pulls the folded newspaper out of its wrapper and flattens it on his desk. His face hardens; without altering its shape, his grin turns stony. “Oh, no. Oh, hell.”


  Lund utters a shapeless groan and shakes his head.

  “Jesus. I don’t even want to know.” Bobby rams his hands into his pockets, then pulls himself perfectly upright, jerks his right hand free, and clamps it over his eyes. “I’m a blind guy, all right? Make me an umpire—I don’t wanna be a cop anymore.”

  Lund says nothing.

  “It’s a headline? Like a banner headline? How bad is it?” Bobby pulls his hand away from his eyes and holds it suspended in midair.

  “Well,” Lund tells him, “it looks like Wendell didn’t get some sense, after all, and he sure as hell didn’t decide to lay off. I can’t believe I said I liked the dipshit.”

  “Wake up,” Bobby says. “Nobody ever told you law enforcement officers and journalists are on opposite sides of the fence?”

  Tom Lund’s ample torso tilts over his desk. A thick lateral crease like a scar divides his forehead, and his stolid cheeks burn crimson. He aims a finger at Bobby Dulac. “This is one thing that really gets me about you, Bobby. How long have you been here? Five, six months? Dale hired me four years ago, and when him and Hollywood put the cuffs on Mr. Thornberg Kinderling, which was the biggest case in this county for maybe thirty years, I can’t claim any credit, but at least I pulled my weight. I helped put some of the pieces together.”

  “One of the pieces,” Bobby says.

  “I reminded Dale about the girl bartender at the Taproom, and Dale told Hollywood, and Hollywood talked to the girl, and that was a big, big piece. It helped get him. So don’t you talk to me that way.”

  Bobby Dulac assumes a look of completely hypothetical contrition. “Sorry, Tom. I guess I’m kind of wound up and beat to shit at the same time.” What he thinks is: So you got a couple years on me and you once gave Dale this crappy little bit of information, so what, I’m a better cop than you’ll ever be. How heroic were you last night, anyhow?

  At 11:15 the previous night, Armand “Beezer” St. Pierre and his fellow travelers in the Thunder Five had roared up from Nailhouse Row to surge into the police station and demand of its three occupants, each of whom had worked an eighteen-hour shift, exact details of the progress they were making on the issue that most concerned them all. What the hell was going on here? What about the third one, huh, what about Irma Freneau? Had they found her yet? Did these clowns have anything, or were they still just blowing smoke? You need help? Beezer roared, Then deputize us, we’ll give you all the goddamn help you need and then some. A giant named Mouse had strolled smirking up to Bobby Dulac and kept on strolling, jumbo belly to six-pack belly, until Bobby was backed up against a filing cabinet, whereupon the giant Mouse had mysteriously inquired, in a cloud of beer and marijuana, whether Bobby had ever dipped into the works of a gentleman named Jacques Derrida. When Bobby replied that he had never heard of the gentleman, Mouse said, “No shit, Sherlock,” and stepped aside to glare at the names on the chalkboard. Half an hour later, Beezer, Mouse, and their companions were sent away unsatisfied, undeputized, but pacified, and Dale Gilbertson said he had to go home and get some sleep, but Tom ought to remain, just in case. The regular night men had both found excuses not to come in. Bobby said he would stay, too, no problem, Chief, which is why we find these two men in the station so early in the morning.

  “Give it to me,” says Bobby Dulac.

  Lund picks up the paper, turns it around, and holds it out for Bobby to see: FISHERMAN STILL AT LARGE IN FRENCH LANDING AREA, reads the headline over an article that takes up three columns on the top left-hand side of the front page. The columns of type have been printed against a background of pale blue, and a black border separates them from the remainder of the page. Beneath the head, in smaller print, runs the line Identity of Psycho Killer Baffles Police. Underneath the subhead, a line in even smaller print attributes the article to Wendell Green, with the support of the editorial staff.

  “The Fisherman,” Bobby says. “Right from the start, your friend has his thumb up his butt. The Fisherman, the Fisherman, the Fisherman. If I all of a sudden turned into a fifty-foot ape and started stomping on buildings, would you call me King Kong?” Lund lowers the newspaper and smiles. “Okay,” Bobby allows, “bad example. Say I held up a couple banks. Would you call me John Dillinger?”

  “Well,” says Lund, smiling even more broadly, “they say Dillinger’s tool was so humongous, they put it in a jar in the Smithsonian. So . . .”

  “Read me the first sentence,” Bobby says.

  Tom Lund looks down and reads: “ ‘As the police in French Landing fail to discover any leads to the identity of the fiendish double murderer and sex criminal this reporter has dubbed “the Fisherman,” the grim specters of fear, despair, and suspicion run increasingly rampant through the streets of that little town, and from there out into the farms and villages throughout French County, darkening by their touch every portion of the Coulee Country.’ ”

  “Just what we need,” Bobby says. “Jee-zus!” And in an instant has crossed the room and is leaning over Tom Lund’s shoulder, reading the Herald’s front page with his hand resting on the butt of his Glock, as if ready to drill a hole in the article right here and now.

  “ ‘Our traditions of trust and good neighborliness, our habit of extending warmth and generosity to all [writes Wendell Green, editorializing like crazy], are eroding daily under the corrosive onslaught of these dread emotions. Fear, despair, and suspicion are poisonous to the soul of communities large and small, for they turn neighbor against neighbor and make a mockery of civility.

  “ ‘Two children have been foully murdered and their remains partially consumed. Now a third child has disappeared. Eight-year-old Amy St. Pierre and seven-year-old Johnny Irkenham fell victim to the passions of a monster in human form. Neither will know the happiness of adolescence or the satisfactions of adulthood. Their grieving parents will never know the grandchildren they would have cherished. The parents of Amy and Johnny’s playmates shelter their children within the safety of their own homes, as do parents whose children never knew the deceased. As a result, summer playgroups and other programs for young children have been canceled in virtually every township and municipality in French County.

  “ ‘With the disappearance of ten-year-old Irma Freneau seven days after the death of Amy St. Pierre and only three after that of Johnny Irkenham, public patience has grown dangerously thin. As this correspondent has already reported, Merlin Graasheimer, fifty-two, an unemployed farm laborer of no fixed abode, was set upon and beaten by an unidentified group of men in a Grainger side street late Tuesday evening. Another such episode occurred in the early hours of Thursday morning, when Elvar Praetorious, thirty-six, a Swedish tourist traveling alone, was assaulted by three men, again unidentified, while asleep in La Riviere’s Leif Eriksson Park. Graasheimer and Praetorious required only routine medical attention, but future incidents of vigilantism will almost certainly end more seriously.’ ”

  Tom Lund looks down at the next paragraph, which describes the Freneau girl’s abrupt disappearance from a Chase Street sidewalk, and pushes himself away from his desk.

  Bobby Dulac reads silently for a time, then says, “You gotta hear this shit, Tom. This is how he winds up:

  “ ‘When will the Fisherman strike again?

  “ ‘For he will strike again, my friends, make no mistake.

  “ ‘And when will French Landing’s chief of police, Dale Gilbertson, do his duty and rescue the citizens of this county from the obscene savagery of the Fisherman and the understandable violence produced by his own inaction?’ ”

  Bobby Dulac stamps to the middle of the room. His color has heightened. He inhales, then exhales a magnificent quantity o
f oxygen. “How about the next time the Fisherman strikes,” Bobby says, “how about he goes right up Wendell Green’s flabby rear end?”

  “I’m with you,” says Tom Lund. “Can you believe that shinola? ‘Understandable violence’? He’s telling people it’s okay to mess with anyone who looks suspicious!”

  Bobby levels an index finger at Lund. “I personally am going to nail this guy. That is a promise. I’ll bring him down, alive or dead.” In case Lund may have missed the point, he repeats, “Personally.”

  Wisely choosing not to speak the words that first come to his mind, Tom Lund nods his head. The finger is still pointing. He says, “If you want some help with that, maybe you should talk to Hollywood. Dale didn’t have no luck, but could be you’d do better.”

  Bobby waves this notion away. “No need. Dale and me . . . and you, too, of course, we got it covered. But I personally am going to get this guy. That is a guarantee.” He pauses for a second. “Besides, Hollywood retired when he moved here, or did you forget?”

  “Hollywood’s too young to retire,” Lund says. “Even in cop years, the guy is practically a baby. So you must be the next thing to a fetus.”

  And on their cackle of shared laughter, we float away and out of the ready room and back into the sky, where we glide one block farther north, to Queen Street.

  Moving a few blocks east we find, beneath us, a low, rambling structure branching out from a central hub that occupies, with its wide, rising breadth of lawn dotted here and there with tall oaks and maples, the whole of a block lined with bushy hedges in need of a good trim. Obviously an institution of some kind, the structure at first resembles a progressive elementary school in which the various wings represent classrooms without walls, the square central hub the dining room and administrative offices. When we drift downward, we hear George Rathbun’s genial bellow rising toward us from several windows. The big glass front door swings open, and a trim woman in cat’s-eye glasses comes out into the bright morning, holding a poster in one hand and a roll of tape in the other. She immediately turns around and, with quick, efficient gestures, fixes the poster to the door. Sunlight reflects from a smoky gemstone the size of a hazelnut on the third finger of her right hand.

  While she takes a moment to admire her work, we can peer over her crisp shoulder and see that the poster announces, in a cheerful burst of hand-drawn balloons, that TODAY IS STRAWBERRY FEST!!!; when the woman walks back inside, we take in the presence, in the portion of the entry visible just beneath the giddy poster, of two or three folded wheelchairs. Beyond the wheelchairs, the woman, whose chestnut hair has been pinned back into an architectural whorl, strides on her high-heeled pumps through a pleasant lobby with blond wooden chairs and matching tables strewn artfully with magazines, marches past a kind of unmanned guardpost or reception desk before a handsome fieldstone wall, and vanishes, with the trace of a skip, through a burnished door marked WILLIAM MAXTON, DIRECTOR.

  What kind of school is this? Why is it open for business, why is it putting on festivals, in the middle of July?

  We could call it a graduate school, for those who reside here have graduated from every stage of their existences but the last, which they live out, day after day, under the careless stewardship of Mr. William “Chipper” Maxton, Director. This is the Maxton Elder Care Facility, once—in a more innocent time, and before the cosmetic renovations done in the mid-eighties—known as the Maxton Nursing Home, which was owned and managed by its founder, Herbert Maxton, Chipper’s father. Herbert was a decent if wishy-washy man who, it is safe to say, would be appalled by some of the things the sole fruit of his loins gets up to. Chipper never wanted to take over “the family playpen,” as he calls it, with its freight of “gummers,” “zombies,” “bed wetters,” and “droolies,” and after getting an accounting degree at UW–La Riviere (with hard-earned minors in promiscuity, gambling, and beer drinking), our boy accepted a position with the Madison, Wisconsin, office of the Internal Revenue Service, largely for the purpose of learning how to steal from the government undetected. Five years with the IRS taught him much that was useful, but when his subsequent career as a freelancer failed to match his ambitions, he yielded to his father’s increasingly frail entreaties and threw in his lot with the undead and the droolies. With a certain grim relish, Chipper acknowledged that despite a woeful shortage of glamour, his father’s business would at least provide him with the opportunity to steal from the clients and the government alike.

  Let us flow in through the big glass doors, cross the handsome lobby (noting, as we do so, the mingled odors of air freshener and ammonia that pervade even the public areas of all such institutions), pass through the door bearing Chipper’s name, and find out what that well-arranged young woman is doing here so early.

  Beyond Chipper’s door lies a windowless cubicle equipped with a desk, a coatrack, and a small bookshelf crowded with computer printouts, pamphlets, and flyers. A door stands open beside the desk. Through the opening, we see a much larger office, paneled in the same burnished wood as the director’s door and containing leather chairs, a glass-topped coffee table, and an oatmeal-colored sofa. At its far end looms a vast desk untidily heaped with papers and so deeply polished it seems nearly to glow.

  Our young woman, whose name is Rebecca Vilas, sits perched on the edge of this desk, her legs crossed in a particularly architectural fashion. One knee folds over the other, and the calves form two nicely molded, roughly parallel lines running down to the triangular tips of the black high-heeled pumps, one of which points to four o’clock and the other to six. Rebecca Vilas, we gather, has arranged herself to be seen, has struck a pose intended to be appreciated, though certainly not by us. Behind the cat’s-eye glasses, her eyes look skeptical and amused, but we cannot see what has aroused these emotions. We assume that she is Chipper’s secretary, and this assumption, too, expresses only half of the truth: as the ease and irony of her attitude imply, Ms. Vilas’s duties have long extended beyond the purely secretarial. (We might speculate about the source of that nice ring she is wearing; as long as our minds are in the gutter, we will be right on the money.)

  We float through the open door, follow the direction of Rebecca’s increasingly impatient gaze, and find ourselves staring at the sturdy, khaki-clad rump of her kneeling employer, who has thrust his head and shoulders into a good-sized safe, in which we glimpse stacks of record books and a number of manila envelopes apparently stuffed with currency. A few bills flop out of these envelopes as Chipper pulls them from the safe.

  “You did the sign, the poster thing?” he asks without turning around.

  “Aye, aye,” says Rebecca Vilas. “And a splendid day it is we shall be havin’ for the great occasion, too, as is only roight and proper.” Her Irish accent is surprisingly good, if a bit generic. She has never been anywhere more exotic than Atlantic City, where Chipper used his frequent-flier miles to escort her for five enchanted days two years before. She learned the accent from old movies.

  “I hate Strawberry Fest,” Chipper says, dredging the last of the envelopes from the safe. “The zombies’ wives and children mill around all afternoon, cranking them up so we have to sedate them into comas just to get some peace. And if you want to know the truth, I hate balloons.” He dumps the money onto the carpet and begins to sort the bills into stacks of various denominations.

  “Only Oi was wonderin’, in me simple country manner,” says Rebecca, “why Oi should be requested to appear at the crack o’ dawn on the grand day.”

  “Know what else I hate? The whole music thing. Singing zombies and that stupid deejay. Symphonic Stan with his big-band records, whoo boy, talk about thrills.”

  “I assume,” Rebecca says, dropping the stage-Irish accent, “you want me to do something with that money before the action begins.”

  “Time for another journey to Miller.” An account under a fictitious name in the State Provident Bank in Miller, forty miles away, receives regular deposits of cash skimmed from patients’ f
unds intended to pay for extra goods and services. Chipper turns around on his knees with his hands full of money and looks up at Rebecca. He sinks back down to his heels and lets his hands fall into his lap. “Boy, do you have great legs. Legs like that, you ought to be famous.”

  “I thought you’d never notice,” Rebecca says.

  Chipper Maxton is forty-two years old. He has good teeth, all his hair, a wide, sincere face, and narrow brown eyes that always look a little damp. He also has two kids, Trey, nine, and Ashley, seven and recently diagnosed with ADD, a matter Chipper figures is going to cost him maybe two thousand a year in pills alone. And of course he has a wife, his life’s partner, Marion, thirty-nine years of age, five foot five, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 190 pounds. In addition to these blessings, as of last night Chipper owes his bookie $13,000, the result of an unwise investment in the Brewers game George Rathbun is still bellowing about. He has noticed, oh, yes he has, Chipper has noticed Ms. Vilas’s splendidly cantilevered legs.

  “Before you go over there,” he says, “I was thinking we could kind of stretch out on the sofa and fool around.”

  “Ah,” Rebecca says. “Fool around how, exactly?”

  “Gobble, gobble, gobble,” Chipper says, grinning like a satyr.

  “You romantic devil, you,” says Rebecca, a remark that utterly escapes her employer. Chipper thinks he actually is being romantic.

  She slides elegantly down from her perch, and Chipper pushes himself inelegantly upright and closes the safe door with his foot. Eyes shining damply, he takes a couple of thuggish, strutting strides across the carpet, wraps one arm around Rebecca Vilas’s slender waist and with the other slides the fat manila envelopes onto the desk. He is yanking at his belt even before he begins to pull Rebecca toward the sofa.

  “So can I see him?” says clever Rebecca, who understands exactly how to turn her lover’s brains to porridge . . .

  . . . and before Chipper obliges her, we do the sensible thing and float out into the lobby, which is still empty. A corridor to the left of the reception desk takes us to two large, blond, glass-inset doors marked DAISY and BLUEBELL, the names of the wings to which they give entrance. Far down the gray length of Bluebell, a man in baggy coveralls dribbles ash from his cigarette onto the tiles over which he is dragging, with exquisite slowness, a filthy mop. We move into Daisy.