Black House Chapter Seventeen
GEORGE POTTER is sitting on the bunk in the third holding cell down a short corridor that smells of piss and disinfectant.He’s looking out the window at the parking lot, which has lately been the scene of so much excitement and which is still full of milling people.He doesn’t turn at the sound of Jack’s approaching footfalls.
As he walks, Jack passes two signs.
ONE CALL MEANS ONE CALL, reads the first. A.A. MEETINGS MON. AT 7 P.M., N.A. MEETINGS THURS. AT 8 P.M., reads the second. There’s a dusty drinking fountain and an ancient fire extinguisher, which some wit has labeled LAUGHING GAS.
Jack reaches the bars of the cell and raps on one with his house key. Potter at last turns away from the window. Jack, still in that state of hyperawareness that he now recognizes as a kind of Territorial residue, knows the essential truth of the man at a single look. It’s in the sunken eyes and the dark hollows beneath them; it’s in the sallow cheeks and the slightly hollowed temples with their delicate nestles of veins; it’s in the too sharp prominence of the nose.
“Hello, Mr. Potter,” he says. “I want to talk to you, and we have to make it fast.”
“They wanted me,” Potter remarks.
“Maybe you should have let ’em take me. Another three-four months, I’m out of the race anyway.”
In his breast pocket is the Mag-card Dale has given him, and Jack uses it to unlock the cell door. There’s a harsh buzzing as it trundles back on its short track. When Jack removes the key, the buzzing stops. Downstairs in the ready room, an amber light marked H.C. 3 will now be glowing.
Jack comes in and sits down on the end of the bunk. He has put his key ring away, not wanting the metallic smell to corrupt the scent of lilies. “Where have you got it?”
Without asking how Jack knows, Potter raises one large gnarled hand ?? a carpenter’s hand ?? and touches his midsection. Then he lets it drop. “Started in the gut. That was five years ago. I took the pills and the shots like a good boy. La Riviere, that was. That stuff . . . man, I was throwing up ever’where. Corners and just about ever’where. Once I threw up in my own bed and didn’t even know it. Woke up the next morning with puke drying on my chest. You know anything about that, son?”
“My mother had cancer,” Jack says quietly. “When I was twelve. Then it went away.”
“She get five years?”
“Lucky,” Potter says. “Got her in the end, though, didn’t it?”
Potter nods back. They’re not quite friends yet, but it’s edging that way. It’s how Jack works, always has been.
“That shit gets in and waits,” Potter tells him. “My theory is that it never goes away, not really. Anyway, shots is done. Pills is done, too. Except for the ones that kill the pain. I come here for the finish.”
“Why?” This is not a thing Jack needs to know, and time is short, but it’s his technique, and he won’t abandon what works just because there are a couple of State Police jarheads downstairs waiting to take his boy. Dale will have to hold them off, that’s all.
“Seems like a nice enough little town. And I like the river. I go down ever’ day. Like to watch the sun on the water. Sometimes I think of all the jobs I did ?? Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois ?? and then sometimes I don’t think about much of anything. Sometimes I just sit there on the bank and feel at peace.”
“What was your line of work, Mr. Potter?”
“Started out as a carpenter, just like Jesus. Progressed to builder, then got too big for my britches. When that happens to a builder, he usually goes around calling himself a contractor. I made three-four million dollars, had a Cadillac, had a young woman who hauled my ashes Friday nights. Nice young woman. No trouble. Then I lost it all. Only thing I missed was the Cadillac. It had a smoother ride than the woman. Then I got my bad news and come here.”
He looks at Jack.
“You know what I think sometimes? That French Landing’s close to a better world, one where things look and smell better. Maybe where people act better. I don’t go around with folks ?? I’m not a friendly type person ?? but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel things. I got this idea in my head that it’s not too late to be decent. You think I’m crazy?”
“No,” Jack tells him. “That’s pretty much why I came here myself. I’ll tell you how it is for me. You know how if you put a thin blanket over a window, the sun will still shine through?”
George Potter looks at him with eyes that are suddenly alight. Jack doesn’t even have to finish the thought, which is good. He has found the wavelength ?? he almost always does, it’s his gift ?? and now it’s time to get down to business.
“You do know,” Potter says simply.
Jack nods. “You know why you’re here?”
“They think I killed that lady’s kid.” Potter nods toward the window. “The one out there that was holdin’ up the noose. I didn’t. That’s what I know.”
“Okay, that’s a start. Listen to me, now.”
Very quickly, Jack lays out the chain of events that has brought Potter to this cell. Potter’s brow furrows as Jack speaks, and his big hands knot together.
“Railsback!” he says at last. “I shoulda known! Nosy goddamn old man, always askin’ questions, always askin’ do you want to play cards or maybe shoot some pool or, I dunno, play Parcheesi, for Christ’s sake! All so he can ask questions. Goddamn nosey parker . . .”
There’s more in this vein, and Jack lets him go on with it for a while. Cancer or no cancer, this old fellow has been ripped out of his ordinary routine without much mercy, and needs to vent a little. If Jack cuts him off to save time, he’ll lose it instead.It’s hard to be patient (how is Dale holding those two assholes off ? Jack doesn’t even want to know), but patience is necessary. When Potter begins to widen the scope of his attack, however (Morty Fine comes in for some abuse, as does Andy Railsback’s pal Irv Throneberry), Jack steps in.
“The point is, Mr. Potter, that Railsback followed someone to your room. No, that’s the wrong way to put it. Railsback was led to your room.”
Potter doesn’t reply, just sits looking at his hands. But he nods. He’s old, he’s sick and getting sicker, but he’s four counties over from stupid.
“The person who led Railsback was almost certainly the same person who left the Polaroids of the dead children in your closet.”
“Yar, makes sense. And if he had pictures of the dead kiddies, he was prob’ly the one who made ’em dead.”
“Right. So I have to wonder ?? “
Potter waves an impatient hand. “I guess I know what you got to wonder. Who there is around these parts who’d like to see Chicago Potsie strung up by the neck. Or the balls.”
“Don’t want to put a stick in your spokes, sonny, but I can’t think of nobody.”
“No?” Jack raises his eyebrows. “Never did business around here, built a house or laid out a golf course?”
Potter raises his head and gives Jack a grin. “Course I did. How else d’you think I knew how nice it is? Specially in the summer? You know the part of town they call Libertyville? Got all those ‘ye olde’ streets like Camelot and Avalon?”
“I built half of those. Back in the seventies. There was a fella around then . . . some moke I knew from Chicago . . . or thought I knew Was he in the business?” This last seems to be Potter addressing Potter. In any case, he gives his head a brief shake. “Can’t remember. Doesn’t matter, anyway. How could it? Fella was gettin’ on then, must be dead now. It was a long time ago.”
But Jack, who interrogates as Jerry Lee Lewis once played the piano, thinks it does matter. In the usually dim section of his mind where intuition keeps its headquarters, lights are coming on. Not a lot yet, but maybe more than just a few.
“A moke,” he says, as if he has never heard the word before. “What’s that?”
Potter gives him a brief, irritated look. “A citizen who . . . well, not exactly a citizen. Someone who knows people who are connected. Or maybe sometimes connected people call him. Maybe they do each other favors. A moke. It’s not the world’s best thing to be.”
No, Jack thinks, but moking can get you a Cadillac with that nice smooth ride.
“Were you ever a moke, George?” Got to get a little more intimate now. This is not a question Jack can address to a Mr. Potter.
“Maybe,” Potter says after a grudging, considering pause. “Maybe I was. Back in Chi. In Chi, you had to scratch backs and wet beaks if you wanted to land the big contracts. I don’t know how it is there now, but in those days, a clean contractor was a poor contractor. You know?”
“The biggest deal I ever made was a housing development on the South Side of Chicago. Just like in that song about bad, bad Leroy Brown.” Potter chuckles rustily. For a moment he’s not thinking about cancer, or false accusations, or almost being lynched. He’s living in the past, and it may be a little sleazy, but it’s better than the present ?? the bunk chained to the wall, the steel toilet, the cancer spreading through his guts.
“Man, that one was big, I kid you not. Lots of federal money, but the local hotshots decided where the dough went home at night. And me and this other guy, this moke, we were in a horse race ?? “
He breaks off, looking at Jack with wide eyes.
“Holy shit, what are you, magic?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m just sitting here.”
“That guy was the guy who showed up here. That was the moke!”
“I’m not following you, George.” But Jack thinks he is. And although he’s starting to get excited, he shows it no more than he did when the bartender told him about Kinderling’s little nose-pinching trick.
“It’s probably nothing,” Potter says. “Guy had plenty of reasons not to like yours truly, but he’s got to be dead. He’d be in his eighties, for Christ’s sake.”
“Tell me about him,” Jack says.
“He was a moke,” Potter repeats, as if this explains everything. “And he must have got in trouble in Chicago or somewhere around Chicago, because when he showed up here, I’m pretty sure he was using a different name.”
“When did you swink him on the housing-development deal, George?”
Potter smiles, and something about the size of his teeth and the way they seem to jut from the gums allows Jack to see how fast death is rushing toward this man. He feels a little shiver of gooseflesh, but he returns the smile easily enough. This is also how he works.
“If we’re gonna talk about mokin’ and swinkin’, you better call me Potsie.”
“All right, Potsie. When did you swink this guy in Chicago?”
“That much is easy,” Potter says. “It was summer when the bids went out, but the hotshots were still bellerin’ about how the hippies came to town the year before and gave the cops and the mayor a black eye. So I’d say 1969. What happened was I’d done the building commissioner a big favor, and I’d done another for this old woman who swung weight on this special Equal Opportunity Housing Commission that Mayor Daley had set up. So when the bids went out, mine got special consideration. This other guy ?? the moke ?? I have no doubt that his bid was lower. He knew his way around, and he musta had his own contacts, but that time I had the inside track.”
He smiles. The gruesome teeth appear, then disappear again.
“Moke’s bid? Somehow gets lost. Comes in too late. Bad luck. Chicago Potsie nails the job. Then, four years later, the moke shows up here, bidding on the Libertyville job. Only that time when I beat him, everything was square-john. I pulled no strings. I met him in the bar at the Nelson Hotel the night after the contract was awarded, just by accident. And he says, ‘You were that guy in Chicago.’ And I say, ‘There are lots of guys in Chicago.’ Now this guy was a moke, but he was a scary moke. He had a kind of smell about him. I can’t put it any better than that. Anyway, I was big and strong in those days, I could be mean, but I was pretty meek that time. Even after a drink or two, I was pretty meek.
” ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘there are a lot of guys in Chicago, but only one who diddled me. I still got a sore ass from that, Potsie, and I got a long memory.’
“Any other time, any other guy, I might have asked how good his memory stayed after he got his head knocked on the floor, but with him I just took it. No more words passed between us. He walked out. I don’t think I ever saw him again, but I heard about him from time to time while I was working the Libertyville job. Mostly from my subs. Seems like the moke was building a house of his own in French Landing. For his retirement. Not that he was old enough to retire back then, but he was gettin’ up a little. Fifties, I’d say . . . and that was in ’72.”
“He was building a house here in town,” Jack muses.
“Yeah. It had a name, too, like one of those English houses. The Birches, Lake House, Beardsley Manor, you know.”
“Shit, I can’t even remember the moke’s name, how do you expect me to remember the name of the house he built? But one thing I do remember: none of the subs liked it. It got a reputation.”
“The worst. There were accidents. One guy cut his hand clean off on a band saw, almost bled to death before they got him to the hospital. Another guy fell off a scaffolding and ended up paralyzed . . . what they call a quad. You know what that is?”
“Only house I ever heard of people were calling haunted even before it was all the way built. I got the idea that he had to finish most of it himself.”
“What else did they say about this place?” Jack puts the question idly, as if he doesn’t care much one way or the other, but he cares a lot. He has never heard of a so-called haunted house in French Landing. He knows he hasn’t been here anywhere near long enough to hear all the tales and legends, but something like this . . . you’d think something like this would pop out of the deck early.
“Ah, man, I can’t remember. Just that . . .” He pauses, eyes distant. Outside the building, the crowd is finally beginning to disperse. Jack wonders how Dale is doing with Brown and Black. The time seems to be racing, and he hasn’t gotten what he needs from Potter. What he’s gotten so far is just enough to tantalize.
“One guy told me the sun never shone there even when it shone,” Potter says abruptly. “He said the house was a little way off the road, in a clearing, and it should have gotten sun at least five hours a day in the summer, but it somehow . . . didn’t. He said the guys lost their shadows, just like in a fairy tale, and they didn’t like it. And sometimes they heard a dog growling in the woods. Sounded like a big one. A mean one. But they never saw it. You know how it is, I imagine. Stories get started, and then they just kinda feed on themselves . . .”
Potter’s shoulders suddenly slump. His head lowers.
“Man, that’s all I can remember.”
“What was the moke’s name when he was in Chicago?”
Jack suddenly thrusts his open hands under Potter’s nose. With his head lowered, Potter doesn’t see them until they’re right there, and he recoils, gasping. He gets a noseful of the dying smell on Jack’s skin.
“What . . . ? Jesus, what’s that?” Potter seizes one of Jack’s hands and sniffs again, greedily. “Boy, that’s nice. What is it?”
“Lilies,” Jack says, but it’s not what he thinks. What he thinks is The memory of my mother. “What was the moke’s name when he was in Chicago?”
“It . . . something like beer stein. That’s not it, but it’s close. Best I can do.”
“Beer stein,” Jack says. “And what was his name when he got to French Landing three years later?”
Suddenly there are loud, arguing voices on the stairs. “I don’t care!” someone shouts. Jack thinks it’s Black, the more officious one. “It’s our case, he’s our prisoner, and we’re taking him out! Now!”
Dale: “I’m not arguing. I’m just saying that the paperwork ?? “
Brown: “Aw, fuck the paperwork. We’ll take it with us.”
“What was his name in French Landing, Potsie?”
“I can’t ?? ” Potsie takes Jack’s hands again. Potsie’s own hands are dry and cold. He smells Jack’s palms, eyes closed. On the long exhale of his breath he says: “Burnside. Chummy Burnside. Not that he was chummy. The nickname was a joke. I think his real handle might have been Charlie.”
Jack takes his hands back. Charles “Chummy” Burnside. Once known as Beer Stein. Or something like Beer Stein.
“And the house? What was the name of the house?”
Brown and Black are coming down the corridor now, with Dale scurrying after them. There’s no time, Jack thinks. Damnit all, if I had even five minutes more ??
And then Potsie says, “Black House. I don’t know if that’s what he called it or what the subs workin’ the job got to calling it, but that was the name, all right.”
Jack’s eyes widen. The image of Henry Leyden’s cozy living room crosses his mind: sitting with a drink at his elbow and reading about Jarndyce and Jarndyce. “Did you say Bleak House?”
“Black,” Potsie reiterates impatiently. “Because it really was. It was ?? “
“Oh dear to Christ,” one of the state troopers says in a snotty look-what-the-cat-dragged-in voice that makes Jack feel like rearranging his face. It’s Brown, but when Jack glances up, it’s Brown’s partner he looks at. The coincidence of the other trooper’s name makes Jack smile.
“Hello, boys,” Jack says, getting up from the bunk.
“What are you doing here, Hollywood?” Black asks.
“Just batting the breeze and waiting for you,” Jack says, and smiles brilliantly. “I suppose you want this guy.”
“You’re goddamn right,” Brown growls. “And if you fucked up our case ?? “
“Gosh, I don’t think so,” Jack says. It’s a struggle, but he manages to achieve a tone of amiability. Then, to Potsie: “You’ll be safer with them than here in French Landing, sir.”
George Potter looks vacant again. Resigned. “Don’t matter much either way,” he says, then smiles as a thought occurs to him. “If old Chummy’s still alive, and you run across him, you might ask him if his ass still hurts from that diddling I gave him back in ’69. And tell him old Chicago Potsie says hello.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Brown asks, glowering. He has his cuffs out, and is clearly itching to snap them on George Potter’s wrists.
“Old times,” Jack says. He stuffs his fragrant hands in his pockets and leaves the cell. He smiles at Brown and Black. “Nothing to concern you boys.”
Trooper Black turns to Dale. “You’re out of this case,” he says. “Those are words of one syllable. I can’t make it any simpler. So tell me once and mean it forever, Chief: Do you understand?”
“Of course I do,” Dale said. “Take the case and welcome. But get off the tall white horse, willya? If you expected me to simply stand by and let a crowd of drunks from the Sand Bar take this man out of Lucky’s and lynch him ?? “
“Don’t make yourself look any stupider than you already are,” Brown snaps. “They picked his name up off your police calls.”
“I doubt that,” Dale says quietly, thinking of the doper’s cell phone borrowed out of evidence storage.
Black grabs Potter’s narrow shoulder, gives it a vicious twist, then thrusts him so hard toward the door at the end of the corridor that the man almost falls down. Potter recovers, his haggard face full of pain and dignity.
“Troopers,” Jack says.
He doesn’t speak loudly or angrily, but they both turn.
“Abuse that prisoner one more time in my sight, and I’ll be on the phone to the Madison shoofly-pies the minute you leave, and believe me, Troopers, they will listen to me. Your attitude is arrogant, coercive, and counterproductive to the resolution of this case. Your interdepartmental cooperation skills are nonexistent. Your demeanor is unprofessional and reflects badly upon the state of Wisconsin. You will either behave yourselves or I guarantee you that by next Friday you will be looking for security jobs.”
Although his voice remains even throughout, Black and Brown seem to shrink as he speaks. By the time he finishes, they look like a pair of chastened children. Dale is gazing at Jack with awe. Only Potter seems unaffected; he’s gazing down at his cuffed hands with eyes that could be a thousand miles away.
“Go on, now,” Jack says. “Take your prisoner, take your case records, and get lost.”
Black opens his mouth to speak, then shuts it again. They leave. When the door closes behind them, Dale looks at Jack and says, very softly: “Wow.”
“If you don’t know,” Dale says, “I’m not going to tell you.”
Jack shrugs. “Potter will keep them occupied, which frees us up to do a little actual work. If there’s a bright side to tonight, that’s it.”
“What did you get from him? Anything?”
“A name. Might mean nothing. Charles Burnside. Nicknamed Chummy. Ever heard of him?”
Dale sticks out his lower lip and pulls it thoughtfully. Then he lets go and shakes his head. “The name itself seems to ring a faint bell, but that might only be because it’s so common. The nickname, no.”
“He was a builder, a contractor, a wheeler-dealer in Chicago over thirty years ago. According to Potsie, at least.”
“Potsie,” Dale says. The tape is peeling off a corner of the ONE CALL MEANS ONE CALL sign, and Dale smoothes it back down with the air of a man who doesn’t really know what he’s doing. “You and he got pretty chummy, didn’t you?”
“No,” Jack says. “Burnside’s Chummy. And Trooper Black doesn’t own the Black House.”
“You’ve gone dotty. What black house?”
“First, it’s a proper name. Black, capital B, house, capital H. Black House. You ever heard of a house named that around here?”
Dale laughs. “God, no.”
Jack smiles back, but all at once it’s his interrogation smile, not his I’m-discussing-things-with-my-friend smile. Because he’s a coppice-man now. And he has seen a funny little flicker in Dale Gilbertson’s eyes.
“Are you sure? Take a minute. Think about it.”
“Told you, no. People don’t name their houses in these parts. Oh, I guess old Miss Graham and Miss Pentle call their place on the other side of the town library Honeysuckle, because of the honeysuckle bushes all over the fence in front, but that’s the only one in these parts I ever heard named.”
Again, Jack sees that flicker. Potter is the one who will be charged for murder by the Wisconsin State Police, but Jack didn’t see that deep flicker in Potter’s eyes a single time during their interview. Because Potter was straight with him.
Dale isn’t being straight.
But I have to be gentle with him, Jack tells himself. Because he doesn’t know he’s not being straight. How is that possible?
As if in answer, he hears Chicago Potsie’s voice: One guy told me the sun never shone there even when it shone . . . he said the guys lost their shadows, just like in a fairy tale.
Memory is a shadow; any cop trying to reconstruct a crime or an accident from the conflicting accounts of eyewitnesses knows it well. Is Potsie’s Black House like this? Something that casts no shadow? Dale’s response (he has now turned full-face to the peeling poster, working on it as seriously as he might work on a heart attack victim in the street, administering CPR right out of the manual until the ambulance arrives) suggests to Jack that it might be something like just that. Three days ago he wouldn’t have allowed himself to consider such an idea, but three days ago he hadn’t returned to the Territories.
“According to Potsie, this place got a reputation as a haunted house even before it was completely built,” Jack says, pressing a little.
“Nope.” Dale moves on to the sign about the A.A. and N.A. meetings. He examines the tape studiously, not looking at Jack. “Doesn’t ring the old chimeroo.”
“Sure? One man almost bled to death. Another took a fall that paralyzed him. People complained ?? listen to this, Dale, it’s good ?? according to Potsie, people complained about losing their shadows. Couldn’t see them even at midday, with the sun shining full force. Isn’t that something?”
“Sure is, but I don’t remember any stories like that.” As Jack walks toward Dale, Dale moves away. Almost scutters away, although Chief Gilbertson is not ordinarily a scuttering man. It’s a little funny, a little sad, a little horrible. He doesn’t know he’s doing it, Jack’s sure of that. There is a shadow. Jack sees it, and on some level Dale knows he sees it. If Jack should force him too hard, Dale would have to see it, too . . . and Dale doesn’t want that. Because it’s a bad shadow. Is it worse than a monster who kills children and then eats selected portions of their bodies? Apparently part of Dale thinks so.
I could make him see that shadow, Jack thinks coldly. Put my hands under his nose ?? my lily-scented hands ?? and make him see it. Part of him even wants to see it. The coppiceman part.
Then another part of Jack’s mind speaks up in the Speedy Parker drawl he now remembers from his childhood. You could push him over the edge of a nervous breakdown, too, Jack. God knows he’s close to one, after all the goin’s-ons since the Irkenham boy got took. You want to chance that? And for what? He didn’t know the name, about that he was bein’ straight.
Dale gives Jack a quick, bright glance, then looks away. The furtive quality in that quick peek sort of breaks Jack’s heart. “What?”
“Let’s go get a cup of coffee.”
At this change of subject, Dale’s face fills with glad relief. He claps Jack on the shoulder. “Good idea!”
God-pounding good idea, right here and now, Jack thinks, then smiles. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to find a Black House. It’s been a long day. Best, maybe, to let this go. At least for tonight.
“What about Railsback?” Dale asks as they clatter down the stairs. “You still want to talk to him?”
“You bet,” Jack replies, heartily enough, but he holds out little hope for Andy Railsback, a picked witness who saw exactly what the Fisherman wanted him to see. With one little exception . . . perhaps. The single slipper. Jack doesn’t know if it will ever come to anything, but it might. In court, for instance . . . as an identifying link . . .
This is never going to court and you know it. It may not even finish in this w ??
His thoughts are broken by a wave of cheerful sound as they step into the combination ready room and dispatch center. The members of the French Landing Police Department are standing and applauding. Henry Leyden is also standing and applauding. Dale joins in.
“Jesus, guys, quit it,” Jack says, laughing and blushing at the same time. But he won’t lie to himself, try to tell himself he takes no pleasure in that round of applause. He feels the warmth of them; can see the light of their regard. Those things aren’t important. But it feels like coming home, and that is.
When Jack and Henry step out of the police station an hour or so later, Beezer, Mouse, and Kaiser Bill are still there. The other two have gone back to the Row to fill in the various old ladies on tonight’s events.
“Sawyer,” Beezer says.
“Yes,” Jack says.
“Anything we can do, man. Can you dig that? Anything.”
Jack looks at the biker thoughtfully, wondering what his story is . . . other than grief, that is. A father’s grief. Beezer’s eyes remain steady on his. A little off to one side, Henry Leyden stands with his head raised to smell the river fog, humming deep down in his throat.
“I’m going to look in on Irma’s mom tomorrow around eleven,” Jack says. “Do you suppose you and your friends could meet me in the Sand Bar around noon? She lives close to there, I understand. I’ll buy youse a round of lemonade.”
Beezer doesn’t smile, but his eyes warm up slightly. “We’ll be there.”
“That’s good,” Jack says.
“Mind telling me why?”
“There’s a place that needs finding.”
“Does it have to do with whoever killed Amy and the other kids?”
Beezer nods. “Maybe’s good enough.”
Jack drives back toward Norway Valley slowly, and not just because of the fog. Although it’s still early in the evening, he is tired to the bone and has an idea that Henry feels the same way. Not because he’s quiet; Jack has become used to Henry’s occasional dormant stretches. No, it’s the quiet in the truck itself. Under ordinary circumstances, Henry is a restless, compulsive radio tuner, running through the La Riviere stations, checking KDCU here in town, then ranging outward, hunting for Milwaukee, Chicago, maybe even Omaha, Denver, and St. Louis, if conditions are right. An appetizer of bop here, a salad of spiritual music there, perhaps a dash of Perry Como way down at the foot of the dial: hot-diggity, dog-diggity, boom what-ya-do-to-me. Not tonight, though. Tonight Henry just sits quiet on his side of the truck with his hands folded in his lap. At last, when they’re no more than two miles from his driveway, Henry says: “No Dickens tonight, Jack. I’m going straight to bed.”
The weariness in Henry’s voice startles Jack, makes him uneasy. Henry doesn’t sound like himself or any of his radio personae; at this moment he just sounds old and tired, on the way to being used up.
“I am, too,” Jack agrees, trying not to let his concern show in his voice. Henry picks up on every vocal nuance. He’s eerie that way.
“What do you have in mind for the Thunder Five, may I ask?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Jack says, and perhaps because he’s tired, he gets this untruth past Henry. He intends to start Beezer and his buddies looking for the place Potsie told him about, the place where shadows had a way of disappearing. At least way back in the seventies they did. He had also intended to ask Henry if he’s ever heard of a French Landing domicile called Black House. Not now, though. Not after hearing how beat Henry sounds. Tomorrow, maybe. Almost certainly, in fact, because Henry is too good a resource not to use. Best to let him recycle a little first, though.
“You have the tape, right?”
Henry pulls the cassette with the Fisherman’s 911 call on it partway out of his breast pocket, then puts it back. “Yes, Mother. But I don’t think I can listen to a killer of small children tonight, Jack. Not even if you come in and listen with me.”
“Tomorrow will be fine,” Jack says, hoping he isn’t condemning another of French Landing’s children to death by saying this.
“You’re not entirely sure of that.”
“No,” Jack agrees, “but you listening to that tape with dull ears could do more harm than good. I am sure of that.”
“First thing in the morning. I promise.”
Henry’s house is up ahead now. It looks lonely with only the one light on over the garage, but of course Henry doesn’t need lights inside to find his way.
“Henry, are you going to be all right?”
“Yes,” Henry says, but to Jack he doesn’t seem entirely sure.
“No Rat tonight,” Jack tells him firmly.
“Ditto the Shake, the Shook, the Sheik.”
Henry’s lips lift in a small smile. “Not even a George Rathbun promo for French Landing Chevrolet, where price is king and you never pay a dime of interest for the first six months with approved credit. Straight to bed.”
“Me too,” Jack says.
But an hour after lying down and putting out the lamp on his bedside table, Jack is still unable to sleep. Faces and voices revolve in his mind like crazy clock hands. Or a carousel on a deserted midway.
Tansy Freneau: Bring out the monster who killed my pretty baby.
Beezer St. Pierre: We’ll have to see how it shakes out, won’t we
George Potter: That shit gets in and waits. My theory is that it never goes away, not really.
Speedy, a voice from the distant past on the sort of telephone that was science fiction when Jack first met him: Hidey-ho, Travelin’ Jack . . . as one coppiceman to another, son, I think you ought to visit Chief Gilbertson’s private bathroom. Right now.
As one coppiceman to another, right.
And most of all, over and over again, Judy Marshall: You don’t just say, I’m lost and I don’t know how to get back ?? you keep on going . . .
Yes, but keep on going where? Where?
At last he gets up and goes out onto the porch with his pillow under his arm. The night is warm; in Norway Valley, where the fog was thin to begin with, the last remnants have now disappeared, blown away by a soft east wind. Jack hesitates, then goes on down the steps, naked except for his underwear. The porch is no good to him, though. It’s where he found that hellish box with the sugar-packet stamps.
He walks past his truck, past the bird hotel, and into the north field. Above him are a billion stars. Crickets hum softly in the grass. His fleeing path through the hay and timothy has disappeared, or maybe now he’s entering the field in a different place.
A little way in, he lies down on his back, puts the pillow under his head, and looks up at the stars. Just for a little while, he thinks. Just until all those ghost voices empty out of my head. Just for a little while.
Thinking this, he begins to drowse.
Thinking this, he goes over.
Above his head, the pattern of the stars changes. He sees the new constellations form. What is that one, where the Big Dipper was a moment before? Is it the Sacred Opopanax? Perhaps it is. He hears a low, pleasant creaking sound and knows it’s the windmill he saw when he flipped just this morning, a thousand years ago. He doesn’t need to look at it to be sure, any more than he needs to look at where his house was and see that it has once more become a barn.
Creak . . . creak . . . creak: vast wooden vanes turning in that same east wind. Only now the wind is infinitely sweeter, infinitely purer. Jack touches the waistband of his underpants and feels some rough weave. No Jockey shorts in this world. His pillow has changed, too. Foam has become goosedown, but it’s still comfortable. More comfortable than ever, in truth. Sweet under his head.
“I’ll catch him, Speedy,” Jack Sawyer whispers up at the new shapes in the new stars. “At least I’ll try.”
When he awakens, it’s early morning. The breeze is gone. In the direction from which it came, there’s a bright orange line on the horizon ?? the sun is on its way. He’s stiff and his ass hurts and he’s damp with dew, but he’s rested. The steady, rhythmic creaking is gone, but that doesn’t surprise him. He knew from the moment he opened his eyes that he’s in Wisconsin again. And he knows something else: he can go back. Any time he wants. The real Coulee Country, the deep Coulee Country, is just a wish and a motion away. This fills him with joy and dread in equal parts.
Jack gets up and barefoots back to the house with his pillow under his arm. He guesses it’s about five in the morning. Another three hours’ sleep will make him ready for anything. On the porch steps, he touches the cotton of his Jockey shorts. Although his skin is damp, the shorts are almost dry. Of course they are. For most of the hours he spent sleeping rough (as he spent so many nights that autumn when he was twelve), they weren’t on him at all. They were somewhere else.
“In the Land of Opopanax,” Jack says, and goes inside. Three minutes later he’s asleep again, in his own bed. When he wakes at eight, with the sensible sun streaming in through his window, he could almost believe that his latest journey was a dream.
But in his heart, he knows better.