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The Crime of Julian Wells

Thomas H. Cook


  Books by Thomas H. Cook


  Blood Innocents

  The Orchids



  Sacrificial Ground

  Flesh and Blood

  Streets of Fire

  Night Secrets

  The City When It Rains

  Evidence of Blood

  Mortal Memory

  Breakheart Hill

  The Chatham School Affair

  Instruments of Night

  Places in the Dark

  The Interrogation

  Taken (based on the teleplay

  by Leslie Boehm)

  Moon over Manhattan

  (with Larry King)


  Into the Web

  Red Leaves

  The Cloud of Unknowing

  Master of the Delta

  The Fate of Katherine Carr

  The Last Talk with Lola Faye

  The Quest for Anna Klein


  Early Graves

  Blood Echoes

  A Father’s Story

  (as told by Lionel Dahmer)

  Best American Crime Writing

  2000, 2001 (ed. with Otto Penzler)

  Best American Crime Writing

  2002 (ed. with Otto Penzler)

  Best American Crime Writing

  2003 (ed. with Otto Penzler)

  Best American Crime Writing

  2004 (ed. with Otto Penzler)

  Best American Crime Writing

  2005 (ed. with Otto Penzler)

  Best American Crime Writing

  2006 (ed. with Otto Penzler)

  Best American Crime Reporting

  2007 (ed. with Otto Penzler)

  Best American Crime Reporting

  2008 (ed. with Otto Penzler)

  Best American Crime Reporting

  2009 (ed. with Otto Penzler)

  Best American Crime Reporting

  2010 (ed. with Otto Penzler)



  The Mysterious Press

  an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Inc.

  New York

  Copyright © 2012 by Thomas H. Cook

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 or [email protected].

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  Printed in the United States of America


  ISBN: 978-0-8021-9458-9

  Mysterious Press

  an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

  841 Broadway

  New York, NY 10003

  Distributed by Publishers Group West

  12 13 14 15 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  For the women of Maui:

  Ann Hood, Diane Lake, Annie LeClaire,

  Jacquelyn Mitchard, Deborah Todd, and Sara Young.

  And in loving memory of Heiman Zeidman.

  The Curfew tolls the Knell of parting Day,

  The lowing Herd winds slowly o’er the Lea,

  The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way,

  And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.

  Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard


  He folds the map and puts it on the table beside his chair. Beyond the window, he sees the flat gray waters of the pond. The boat, its yellow paint long faded, rests beneath a weeping birch.

  He rises, walks to the window, and looks out.

  In the distance, a small breeze rustles the leaves of the birch and skirts along the green lawn and gently rocks the purple irises that grow beside the water. He has seen so many grasses, so many flowers. The lavender fields of France, the cloudberries of the Urals with their little orange petals, the feather grasses of the pampas swaying like dancers.

  He will miss these things.

  He considers the act, then its consequences.

  He will make it clean.

  There will be no fuss.

  He turns and gives a final glance at the map. He has studied so many maps. He thinks of the water bearers of the world, almost always women, hauling their jerry jars to the river or the lake. His mind is like those jars, worn and dusty, scarred by use, but still able to hold its heavy store of memory.

  And yet there is something he forgot.

  He walks to the small desk in the corner, opens the notebook, and tears out the top sheet. He folds it carefully, without hurry, then sinks it deep into his pocket.

  It is disturbance you must look for, the old trackers told him. Not prints. Not trails. But disturbance in the spear grass, a sense of reeds askew. Those will lead you to the one you seek.

  He looks about the room for any hint of such disturbance, finds none, and with that assurance, walks to the door, then passes through it, and moves out onto the lawn. He feels the breeze whose movement he had sensed before, cool upon his face, a pressure on his shirt, a gentle movement in his hair.

  He hears a bird call, glances up, and sees a gull as it crosses the lower sky. When was it he first saw the sunbirds of the Sudan, their sun-streaked, iridescent feathers?

  He shakes his head. It doesn’t matter now.

  He draws down his gaze and with a steady stride makes his way to the boat. It is heavy, and he has been weakened, though less by his final work than by this final decision.

  But the decision has been made.

  The boat is weighty but he pulls it into the water. What was the lightest he ever knew? Oh yes, it was made of bulrushes. And what was the other word for bulrushes? Oh yes, it was tule.

  The boat rocks violently as he climbs in, but he rights himself, grabs an oar, and pushes out into the water.

  How far to go?

  The center of the pond. Far enough that he will appear small and indistinct in the distance so that his sister cannot tell what he is doing, nor get to him before he can complete the task.

  Seventy feet from shore now. Perhaps eighty. He has not rowed in a long time. Even now his arms are aching. But that will be over soon. He knows that he has grown weak in the Russian wastes, but he is surprised by just how weak he is. Or has his secret always worked upon him like a withering disease?

  One hundred feet out from shore.


  He takes the folded paper from his pocket and sinks it into the water.


  He sits quietly for a moment, then with his old resolve, he begins the process. First he rolls up his sleeves. For a few seconds he pumps his fist, squeezing in and out. The blue veins rise as if to his command.

  He leans forward and picks up the knife. Its serrated edge will hurt, but he has all his life known pain.

  No mess.

  No fuss.

  He holds one arm over the pale yellow port side and with a single slice opens up his vein. The blood flows down his hand and along his fingers in a steady stream that reddens the water below them. He brings the other arm and hangs it over the water, takes the k
nife with his bloodied hand and makes a second motion.

  It is done.

  At least the first phase.

  Now there is only the will to wait.

  He releases the knife and watches it splash into the red water.

  The wait is not long.

  Soon he begins to lean forward as life flows out of him. He will think no more of sunbirds and bulrushes.

  Finally, he droops over the port side, his arms now deep in the water.

  Seconds later he is gone.

  The wait was not long, but its solitariness is unimaginable.

  Oh, if I had but been there, my dear friend.

  Oh, if I had but been there in the boat with you.

  Knowing what I know now.


  The Tortures of Cuenca


  There is no more haunting story than that of an unsolved crime, Julian had once written, but solutions, I was to discover, can be haunting, too.

  To know the world, one must travel it in the third-class carriage, and I had little doubt that that was surely how Julian had come to know it. He was one of those for whom the usual comforts meant nothing. If the water was yellow, the walls laced with mold, if the sink was ringed in rust, or even if there was no sink at all, if the mosquito net was ripped and the cloaca full, it was the same to Julian. The deeds that drew him were the darkest that we know, and he’d pursued them with the urgency of a lover.

  From his first trip abroad, I’d had little doubt that he would remain an expatriate all his life, which made it all the stranger that, in the end—that terrible, lonely end—he had died at home.

  Now my thought, growing more insistent by the hour, was how I might have saved him.

  “He was wizened,” his sister, Loretta, said to me. “If you can say that about a man who was only in his fifties.” She took a sip from her drink. “It’s hard to imagine that he’s gone.”

  We sat at a small square table in a quiet corner of what was still called an actors’ bar, though now it catered mostly to Broadway tourists. I presumed that Loretta had chosen it because it returned her to the days when she’d struggled to be an actress, trudged that dreary path from audition to audition until rejection’s blade had whittled away the last of that youthful hope. I’d seen her in two productions, both pretty far off Broadway. In the first, she’d played the object of desire in A View from the Bridge. In the second, the title role in Hedda Gabler. In both cases her talent had impressed me, especially the uneasy balance of pathos and simmering violence she’d brought to Hedda, which had also frightened me a little. She’d had every right to succeed on the stage, but hadn’t. Watching her now, I decided that there was perhaps no ash quite so cold as the one left by an unrealized ambition, particularly an artistic one. But then, I thought, there is no such thing as a truly fulfilled ambition, is there? At twenty-three, Alexander the Great had bemoaned the fact that there were no more worlds for him to conquer. It seemed to me that we were all like poor thwarted Alexander, unsatisfied in one way or another. Some were dissatisfied with their choice of careers, others with their choice of mates, still others with their lack of money. My chief dissatisfactions were childlessness and widowhood, to which had now been added my failure to save my one true friend.

  “Some people, when they die, bring more than themselves to an end,” Loretta said. “The books I copyedit now are mostly happy talk. Tips on how to avoid thinking about the only things Julian ever thought about.” She shook her head. “Half the time, I feel like a whore.” Her smile carried the dogged effort of a lost cause. “Have you seen the new rewrite of The Great Gatsby for teen readers? It’s sixty-seven pages long, and it seems that Fitzgerald intended the book to have a happy ending.”

  She was in her early fifties now, but her eyes were as sparkling as they’d ever been. In Egypt, Flaubert had encountered a woman whose exquisite beauty was marred only by that one bad incisor. I could find no such flaw in Loretta. She wore the beauty of her maturity as she had worn the beauty of her youth—easily, almost unconsciously, and with breathtaking grace. Time would do what time always does, but there would be no Botox in Loretta’s future, no facelifts. She would move through the remaining seasons of her life as easily as she moved through the stages of a single day.

  “Julian was an artist,” Loretta said firmly.

  An artist, yes, but with a curious obsession.

  I thought of how he’d spent his last six years following the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo’s path through countless dismal towns, sleeping in the same railway stations, eating black bread and cheese, eyeing the vagabond children who had been Chikatilo’s prey, becoming him, as Julian always seemed to do while writing about such villains.

  “The last book really took it out of him,” Loretta added. “But it wasn’t just exhaustion.”

  “What was it?”

  She thought a moment, then said, “He was like a man in a locked room, trying to get out.”

  Perhaps, but even so, Julian’s mood hadn’t troubled me, because I’d always thought that studying atrocities and detailing the outrages of serial killers would be a labor he would at some point seek to escape. Perhaps, at last, he was breaking free of all that, for there were times, such as when he described a sunset on the Atlas Mountains or a rainstorm in the Carpathians, when his love of the world cut through the darkness and he seemed, at least briefly, to soar above the grim nature of his subject matter. At such moments his spirits would lift, only to be dragged down again, as if by some invisible weight. Oh, what can you do, I had often thought, what can do you do with such a man?

  “I had no inkling he might do what he did,” Loretta said.

  Nor had I, though only a week before, Julian had canceled a trip into the city. Two days after that, Loretta had called to say that he’d been unusually agitated. For that reason, she’d been surprised when she’d seen him calmly make his way toward the small pond that bordered the house, even more surprised that he’d climbed into the little boat the two of them had used as a child, and rowed away. A few minutes later she’d noticed the boat drifting toward shore with Julian leaning over the port side, his bare arms dangling in the water.

  “I knew instantly that he was dead,” Loretta said. “And that he’d done it to himself.” She took another sip of wine. “But why?”

  The tone of her question was quite different from any I’d heard in her voice before. She gave off the air of a person going through someone else’s old papers, looking not for deeds or insurance policies but for the small journal with its cracked leather binding and rusty latch—an item of no value whatsoever, save that it was there, written on some faded page, that the dreadful secret lay.

  But had Julian actually had any such dreadful secret? I had no idea. We’d lived very different lives, after all: he, the expatriate writer; I, the stay-at-home literary critic, whose primary gift was in dissecting novels that, no matter how awful, were certainly beyond my own creative powers. He’d settled in Paris, if you could call the apartment in Pigalle that he rarely used his permanent residence. But even when I’d met him in Paris, or London, or Madrid, he’d had the air of a man briefly stranded in a railway station. For Julian, the road was home, and he’d trudged down some of the worst ones on earth, writing articles about plague and famine and holocaust in addition to his five books. And his writing had been exquisite. Like Orpheus, he had brought music into hell, and like him, he had died in a world that no longer wished to hear it.

  “I sometimes think of him as a fictional character,” Loretta said. “An immortal detective in pursuit of some equally immortal arch villain.” Something in her eyes shattered. “But he will be forgotten, won’t he?”

  “Probably,” I answered frankly.

  “Each book was like a nail in his coffin,” Loretta said. “Even that first one.”

  She meant The Tortures of Cuenca, Julian’s study of a fabled injustice that had been committed in Spain, in 1911. He’d never really returned after that bo
ok, save for short periods, during which he would search for his next book or article. After Cuenca, the pattern was always the same. Go away. Write. Return. Go away. Write. Return. I could not recall just how many times he’d left the Montauk farmhouse he and Loretta had inherited, then come back to it out of nowhere and with no advance word, like a body washed up onshore.

  “He was already planning the next one, you know,” Loretta said. “In a way, that’s what threw me off, because Julian was the same as always. Sitting in the sunroom, planning his next move.”

  “Planning it how?” I asked.

  “By studying a map,” Loretta answered. “That’s how he always began working on his next piece, by studying a map of the country he was going to. Then he’d start reading books about the place.”

  As a result of that research, there’d always been considerable sweep to Julian’s work, as his friendlier reviewers had sometimes pointed out. No crime floated freely. It was always part of a larger disorder, one fiber sprung from a hideous cloth. In a passage on Henri Landru, for example, he’d managed to connect the serial killer’s murders in Paris to the nearby slaughter on the Somme, and this while writing a curious meditation on one of Gilles de Rais’s blood-spattered minions.

  “It was going the way it always had, the circle of Julian’s life,” Loretta said. “Then suddenly he was dead.”

  I felt an inner jolt, not only at Julian’s death, but at my own inevitable demise and everyone else’s, the wheel of time, that ceaselessly revolving door that ushers you out and brings the one behind you in, life itself, the killer we can’t catch.

  “I keep imagining myself in the boat with him,” I said. “I’m completely silent, but I’m searching for what I could say to him that would change his mind.”

  “Do you find the words?” Loretta asked.

  I shook my head. “No.”

  Loretta cocked her head slightly, the way she did when an idea hit her. “Do you suppose he had a wife somewhere? Or a lover? Someone we should notify?”

  The question took me off guard. I’d never considered such a thing.