State your name for the record.'
'Derry is my permanent address, 14 Benton Street, but I also maintain a home in TR-90, on Dark Score Lake. The mailing address is Box 832. The actual house is on Lane Forty-two, off Route 68.'
Elmer Durgin, Kyra Devore's guardian ad litem, waved a pudgy hand in front of his face, either to shoo away some troublesome insect or to tell me that was enough. I agreed that it was. I felt rather like the little girl in Our Town, who gave her address as Grover's Corner, New Hampshire, America, the Northern Hemisphere, the World, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Mind of God. Mostly I was nervous. I'd reached the age of forty still a virgin in the area of court proceedings, and although we were in the conference room of Durgin, Peters, and Jarrette on Bridge Street in Castle Rock, this was still a court proceeding.
There was one mentionably odd detail to these festivities. The stenographer wasn't using one of those keyboards-on-a-post that look like adding machines, but a Stenomask, a gadget which fit over the lower half of his face. I had seen them before, but only in old black-and-white crime movies, the ones where Dan Duryea or John Payne is always driving around in a Buick with portholes on the sides, looking grim and smoking a Camel. Glancing over into the corner and seeing a guy who looked like the world's oldest fighter-pilot was weird enough, but hearing everything you said immediately repeated in a muffled monotone was even weirder.
'Thank you, Mr. Noonan. My wife has read all your books and says you are her favorite author. I just wanted to get that on the record.' Durgin chuckled fatly. Why not? He was a fat guy. Most fat people I like ¡ª they have expansive natures to go with their expansive waistlines. But there is a subgroup which I think of as the Evil Little Fat Folks. You don't want to fuck with the ELFFS if you can help it; they will burn your house and rape your dog if you give them half an excuse and a quarter of an opportunity. Few of them stand over five-foot-two (Durgin's height, I estimated), and many are under five feet. They smile a lot, but their eyes don't smile. The Evil Little Fat Folks hate the whole world. Mostly they hate folks who can look down the length of their bodies and still see their own feet. This included me, although just barely.
'Please thank your wife for me, Mr. Durgin. I'm sure she could recommend one for you to start on.'
Durgin chuckled. On his right, Durgin's assistant ¡ª a pretty young woman who looked approximately seventeen minutes out of law school ¡ª chuckled. On my left, Romeo Bissonette chuckled. In the corner, the world's oldest F- 111 pilot only went on muttering into his Stenomask.
'I'll wait for the big-screen version,' he said. His eyes gave an ugly little gleam, as if he knew a feature film had never been made from one of my books ¡ª only a made-for-TV movie of Being Two that pulled ratings roughly equal to the National Sofa Refinishing Championships. I hoped that we'd completed this chubby little fuck's idea of the pleasantries.
'I am Kyra Devore's guardian ad litem,' he said. 'Do you know what that means, Mr. Noonan?'
'I believe I do.'
'It means,' Durgin rolled on, 'that I've been appointed by Judge Rancourt to decide ¡ª if I can ¡ª where Kyra Devore's best interests lie, should a custody judgment become necessary. Judge Rancourt would not, in such an event, be required to base his decision on my conclusions, but in many cases that is what happens.'
He looked at me with his hands folded on a blank legal pad. The pretty assistant, on the other hand, was scribbling madly. Perhaps she didn't trust the fighter-pilot. Durgin looked as if he expected a round of applause.
'Was that a question, Mr. Durgin?' I asked and Romeo Bissonette delivered a light, practiced chip to my ankle. I didn't need to look at him to know it wasn't an accident.
Durgin pursed lips so smooth and damp that he looked as if he were wearing a clear gloss on them. On his shining pate, roughly two dozen strands of hair were combed in smooth little arcs. He gave me a patient, measuring look. Behind it was all the intransigent ugliness of an Evil Little Fat Folk. The pleasantries were over, all right. I was sure of it.
'No, Mr. Noonan, that was not a question. I simply thought you might like to know why we've had to ask you to come away from your lovely lake on such a pleasant morning. Perhaps I was wrong. Now, if ¡ª '
There was a peremptory knock on the door, followed by your friend and his, George Footman. Today Cleveland Casual had been replaced by a khaki Deputy Sheriff's uniform, complete with Sam Browne belt and sidearm. He helped himself to a good look at the assistant's bustline, displayed in a blue silk blouse, then handed her a folder and a cassette tape recorder. He gave me one brief gander before leaving. I remember you, buddy, that glance said. The smartass writer, the cheap date.
Romeo Bissonette tipped his head toward me. He used the side of his hand to bridge the gap between his mouth and my ear. 'Devore's tape,' he said.
I nodded to show I understood, then turned to Durgin again.
'Mr. Noonan, you've met Kyra Devore and her mother, Mary Devore, haven't you?'
How did you get Mattie out of Mary, I wondered . . . and then knew, just as I had known about the white shorts and halter top. Mattie was how Ki had first tried to say Mary.
'Mr. Noonan, are we keeping you up?'
'There's no need to be sarcastic, is there?' Bissonette asked. His tone was mild, but Elmer Durgin gave him a look which suggested that, should the ELFFS succeed in their goal of world domination, Bissonette would be aboard the first gulag-bound boxcar.
'I'm sorry,' I said before Durgin could reply. 'I just got derailed there for a second or two.'
'New story idea?' Durgin asked, smiling his glossy smile. He looked like a swamp-toad in a sportcoat. He turned to the old jet pilot, told him to strike that last, then repeated his question about Kyra and Mattie.
Yes, I said, I had met them.
'Once or more than once?'
'More than once.'
'How many times have you met them?'
'Have you also spoken to Mary Devore on the phone?'
Already these questions were moving in a direction that made me uncomfortable.
'How many times?'
'Three times.' The third had come the day before, when she had asked if I would join her and John Storrow for a picnic lunch on the town common after my deposition. Lunch right there in the middle of town before God and everybody . . . although, with a New York lawyer to play chaperone, what harm in that?
'Have you spoken to Kyra Devore on the telephone?'
What an odd question! Not one anybody had prepared me for, either. I supposed that was at least partly why he had asked it.
'Yes, I've spoken to her once.'
'Can you tell us the nature of that conversation?'
'Well . . . ' I looked doubtfully at Bissonette, but there was no help there. He obviously didn't know, either. 'Mattie ¡ª '
'Pardon me?' Durgin leaned forward as much as he could. His eyes were intent in their pink pockets of flesh. 'Mattie?'
'Mattie Devore. Mary Devore.'
'You call her Mattie?'
'Yes,' I said, and had a wild impulse to add: In bed! In bed I call her that! 'Oh Mattie, don't stop, don't stop,' I cry!' 'It's the name she gave me when she introduced herself. I met her ¡ª '
'We may get to that, but right now I'm interested in your telephone conversation with Kyra Devore. When was that?'
'It was yesterday.'
'July ninth, 1998.'
'Who placed that call?'
'Ma . . . Mary Devore.' Now he'll ask why she called, I thought, and I'll say she wanted to have yet another sex marathon, foreplay to consist of feeding each other chocolate-dipped strawberries while we look at pictures of naked malformed dwarves. 'How did Kyra Devore happen to speak to you?'
'She asked if she could. I heard her saying to her mother that she had to tell me something.'
'What was it she had to tell you?'
'That she had her first bubble bath.'
'Did she also say she coughed?'
I was quiet, looking at him. In that moment I understood why people hate lawyers, especially when they've been dusted over by one who's good at the job.
'Mr. Noonan, would you like me to repeat the question?'
'No,' I said, wondering where he'd gotten his information. Had these bastards tapped Mattie's phone? My phone? Both? Perhaps for the first time I understood on a gut level what it must be like to have half a billion dollars. With that much dough you could tap a lot of telephones. 'She said her mother pushed bubbles in her face and she coughed. But she was ¡ª '
'Thank you, Mr. Noonan, now let's turn to ¡ª '
'Let him finish,' Bissonette said. I had an idea he had already taken a bigger part in the proceedings than he had expected to, but he didn't seem to mind. He was a sleepy-looking man with a bloodhound's mournful, trustworthy face. 'This isn't a courtroom, and you're not cross-examining him.'
'I have the little girl's welfare to think of,' Durgin said. He sounded both pompous and humble at the same time, a combination that went together like chocolate sauce on creamed corn. 'It's a responsibility I take very seriously. If I seemed to be badgering you, Mr. Noonan, I apologize.'
I didn't bother accepting his apology ¡ª that would have made us both phonies. 'All I was going to say is that Ki was laughing when she said it. She said she and her mother had a bubble-fight. When her mother came back on, she was laughing, too.'
Durgin had opened the folder Footman had brought him and was paging rapidly through it while I spoke, as if he weren't hearing a word. 'Her mother . . . Mattie, as you call her.'
'Yes. Mattie as I call her. How do you know about our private telephone conversation in the first place?'
'That's none of your business, Mr. Noonan.' He selected a single sheet of paper, then closed the folder. He held the paper up briefly, like a doctor studying an X-ray, and I could see it was covered with single-spaced typing. 'Let's turn to your initial meeting with Mary and Kyra Devore. That was on the Fourth of July, wasn't it?'
'Yes.' Durgin was nodding. 'The morning of the Fourth. And you met Kyra Devore first.'
'You met her first because her mother wasn't with her at that time, was she?'
'That's a badly phrased question, Mr. Durgin, but I guess the answer is yes.'
'I'm flattered to have my grammar corrected by a man who's been on the bestseller lists,' Durgin said, smiling. The smile suggested that he'd like to see me sitting next to Romeo Bissonette in that first gulag-bound boxcar. 'Tell us about your meeting, first with Kyra Devore and then with Mary Devore. Or Mattie, if you like that better.'
I told the story. When I was finished, Durgin centered the tape player in front of him. The nails of his pudgy fingers looked as glossy as his lips.
'Mr. Noonan, you could have run Kyra over, isn't that true?'
'Absolutely not. I was going thirty-five ¡ª that's the speed limit there by the store. I saw her in plenty of time to stop.'
'Suppose you had been coming the other way, though ¡ª heading north instead of south. Would you still have seen her in plenty of time?'
That was a fairer question than some of his others, actually. Someone coming the other way would have had a far shorter time to react. Still . . .
'Yes,' I said.
Durgin went up with the eyebrows. 'You're sure of that?'
'Yes, Mr. Durgin. I might have had to come down a little harder on the brakes, but ¡ª '
'Yes, at thirty-five. I told you, that's the speed limit ¡ª '
' ¡ª -on that particular stretch of Route 68. Yes, you told me that. You did. Is it your experience that most people obey the speed limit on that part of the road?'
'I haven't spent much time on the TR since 1993, so I can't ¡ª '
'Come on, Mr. Noonan ¡ª this isn't a scene from one of your books. Just answer my questions, or we'll be here all morning.'
'I'm doing my best, Mr. Durgin.'
He sighed, put-upon. 'You've owned your place on Dark Score Lake since the eighties, haven't you? And the speed limit around the Lakeview General Store, the post office, and Dick Brooks's All-Purpose Garage ¡ª what's called The North Village ¡ª hasn't changed since then, has it?'
'No,' I admitted.
'Returning to my original question, then ¡ª in your observation, do most people on that stretch of road obey the thirty-five-mile-an-hour limit?'
'I can't say if it's most, because I've never done a traffic survey, but I guess a lot don't.'
'Would you like to hear Castle County Sheriffs Deputy Footman testify on where the greatest number of speeding tickets are given out in TR-90, Mr. Noonan?'
'No,' I said, quite honestly.
'Did other vehicles pass you while you were speaking first with Kyra Devore and then with Mary Devore?'
'I don't know exactly. A couple.'
'Could it have been three?'
'No, probably not so many.'
'But you don't know, exactly, do you?'
'Because Kyra Devore was upset.'
'Actually she had it together pretty well for a ¡ª '
'Did she cry in your presence?'
'Well . . . yes.'
'Did her mother make her cry?'
'As unfair as allowing a three-year-old to go strolling down the middle of a busy highway on a holiday morning, in your opinion, or perhaps not quite as unfair as that?'
'Jeepers, lay off,' Mr. Bissonette said mildly. There was distress on his bloodhound's face.
'I withdraw the question,' Durgin said.
'Which one?' I asked.
He looked at me tiredly, as if to say he had to put up with assholes like me all the time and he was used to how we behaved. 'How many cars went by from the time you picked the child up and carried her to safety to the time when you and the Devores parted company?'
I hated that 'carried her to safety' bit, but even as I formulated my answer, the old guy was muttering the question into his Stenomask. And it was in fact what I had done. There was no getting around it.
'I told you, I don't know for sure.'
'Well, give me a guesstimate.'
Guesstimate. One of my all-time least favorite words. A Paul Harvey word. 'There might have been three.'
'Including Mary Devore herself?. Driving a ¡ª ' He consulted the paper he'd taken from the folder. ' ¡ª a 1982 Jeep Scout?'
I thought of Ki saying Mattie go fast and understood where Durgin was heading now. And there was nothing I could do about it.
'Yes, it was her and it was a Scout. I don't know what year.'
'Was she driving below the posted speed limit, at the posted speed limit, or above the posted speed limit when she passed the place where you were standing with Kyra in your arms?'
She'd been doing at least fifty, but I told Durgin I couldn't say for sure. He urged me to try ¡ª I know you are unfamiliar with the hangman's knot, Mr. Noonan, but I'm sure you can make one if you really work at it ¡ª and I declined as politely as I could.
He picked up the paper again. 'Mr. Noonan, would it surprise you to know that two witnesses ¡ª Richard Brooks, Junior, the owner of Dick's All-Purpose Garage, and Royce Merrill, a retired carpenter ¡ª claim that Mrs. Devore was doing well over thirty-five when she passed your location?'
'I don't know,' I said. 'I was concerned with the little girl.'
'Would it surprise you to know that Royce Merrill estimated her speed at sixty miles an hour?'
'That's ridiculous. When she hit the brakes she would have skidded sideways and landed upside down in the ditch.'
'The skid-marks measured by Deputy Footman indicate a speed of at least fifty miles an hour,' Durgin said. It wasn't a question, but he looked at me almost roguishly, as if inviting me to struggle a little more and sink a little deeper into this nasty pit. I said nothing. Durgin folded his pudgy little hands and leaned over them toward me. The roguish look was gone.
'Mr. Noonan, if you hadn't carried Kyra Devore to the side of the road ¡ª if you hadn't rescued her ¡ª mightn't her own mother have run her over?'
Here was the really loaded question, and how should I answer it? Bissonette was certainly not flashing any helpful signals; he seemed to be trying to make meaningful eye-contact with the pretty assistant. I thought of the book Mattie was reading in tandem with 'Bartleby' ¡ª Silent Witness, by Richard North Patterson. Unlike the Grisham brand, Patterson's lawyers almost always seemed to know what they were doing. Objection, Your honor, calls for speculation on the part of the witness.
I shrugged. 'Sorry, counsellor, can't say ¡ª left my crystal ball home.'
Again I saw the ugly flash in Durgin's eyes. 'Mr. Noonan, I can assure you that if you don't answer that question here, you are apt to be called back from Malibu or Fire Island or wherever it is you're going to write your next opus to answer it later on.'
I shrugged. 'I've already told you I was concerned with the child. I can't tell you how fast the mother was going, or how good Royce Merrill's vision is, or if Deputy Footman even measured the right set of skid-marks. There's a whole bunch of rubber on that part of the road, I can tell you. Suppose she was going fifty? Even fifty-five, let's say that. She's twenty-one years old, Durgin. At the age of twenty-one, a person's driving skills are at their peak. She probably would have swerved around the child, and easily.'
'I think that's quite enough.'
'Why? Because you're not getting what you wanted?' Bissonette's shoe clipped my ankle again, but I ignored it. 'If you're on Kyra's side, why do you sound as though you're on her grandfather's?'
A baleful little smile touched Durgin's lips. The kind that says Okay, smart guy, you want to play? He pulled the tape-recorder a little closer to him. 'Since you have mentioned Kyra's grandfather, Mr. Maxwell Devore of Palm Springs, let's talk about him a little, shall we?'
'It's your show.'
'Have you ever spoken with Maxwell Devore?'
'In person or on the phone?'
'Phone.' I thought about adding that he had somehow gotten hold of my unlisted number, then remembered that Mattie had, too, and decided to keep my mouth shut on that subject.
'When was this?'
'Last Saturday night. The night of the Fourth. He called while I was watching the fireworks.'
'And was the subject of your conversation that morning's little adventure?' As he asked, Durgin reached into his pocket and brought out a cassette tape. There was an ostentatious quality to this gesture; in that moment he looked like a parlor magician showing you both sides of a silk handkerchief. And he was bluffing. I couldn't be sure of that . . . and yet I was. Devore had taped our conversation, all right ¡ª that underhum really had been too loud, and on some level I'd been aware of that fact even while I was talking to him ¡ª and I thought it really was on the cassette Durgin was now slotting into the cassette player . . . but it was a bluff.
'I don't recall,' I said.
Durgin's hand froze in the act of snapping the cassette's transparent loading panel shut. He looked at me with frank disbelief . . . and something else. I thought the something else was surprised anger.
'You don't recall? Come now, Mr. Noonan. Surely writers train themselves to recall conversations, and this one was only a week ago. Tell me what you talked about.'
'I really can't say,' I told him in a stolid, colorless voice. For a moment Durgin looked almost panicky. Then his features smoothed. One polished fingernail slipped back and forth over keys marked REW, FF, PLAY, and REC. 'How did Mr. Devore begin the conversation?' he asked.
'He said hello,' I said mildly, and there was a short muffled sound from behind the Stenomask. It could have been the old guy clearing his throat; it could have been a suppressed laugh.
Spots of color were blooming in Durgin's cheeks. 'After hello? What then?'
'I don't recall.'
'Did he ask you about that morning?'
'I don't recall.'
'Didn't you tell him that Mary Devore and her daughter were together, Mr. Noonan? That they were together picking flowers? Isn't that what you told this worried grandfather when he inquired about the incident which was the talk of the township that Fourth of July?'
'Oh boy,' Bissonette said. He raised one hand over the table, then touched the palm with the fingers of the other, making a ref's T. 'Time out.'
Durgin looked at him. The flush in his cheeks was more pronounced now, and his lips had pulled back enough to show the tips of small, neatly capped teeth. 'What do you want?' he almost snarled, as if Bissonette had just dropped by to tell him about the Mormon Way or perhaps the Rosicrucians.
'I want you to stop leading this guy, and I want that whole thing about picking flowers stricken from the record,' Bissonette said.
Durgin snapped. 'Because you're trying to get stuff on the record that this witness won't say. If you want to break here for awhile so we can make a conference call to Judge Rancourt, get his opinion ¡ª '
'I withdraw the question,' Durgin said. He looked at me with a kind of helpless, surly rage. 'Mr. Noonan, do you want to help me do my job?'
'I want to help Kyra Devore if I can,' I said.
'Very well.' He nodded as if no distinction had been made. 'Then please tell me what you and Maxwell Devore talked about.'
'I can't recall.' I caught his eyes and held them. 'Perhaps,' I said, 'you can refresh my recollection.'
There was a moment of silence, like that which sometimes strikes a high-stakes poker game just after the last of the bets have been made and just before the players show their hands. Even the old fighter-pilot was quiet, his eyes unblinking above the mask. Then Durgin pushed the cassette player aside with the heel of his hand (the set of his mouth said he felt about it just then as I often felt about the telephone) and went back to the morning of July Fourth. He never asked about my dinner with Mattie and Ki on Tuesday night, and never returned to my telephone conversation with Devore ¡ª the one where I had said all those awkward and easily disprovable things.
I went on answering questions until eleven-thirty, but the interview really ended when Durgin pushed the tape-player away with the heel of his hand. I knew it, and I'm pretty sure he did, too.
'Mike! Mike, over here!'
Mattie was waving from one of the tables in the picnic area behind the town common's bandstand. She looked vibrant and happy. I waved back and made my way in that direction, weaving between little kids playing tag, skirting a couple of teenagers making out on the grass, and ducking a Frisbee which a leaping German shepherd caught smartly.
There was a tall, skinny redhead with her, but I barely got a chance to notice him. Mattie met me while I was still on the gravel path, put her arms around me, hugged me ¡ª it was no prudey little ass-poking-out hug, either ¡ª and then kissed me on the mouth hard enough to push my lips against my teeth. There was a hearty smack when she disengaged. She pulled back and looked at me with undisguised delight. 'Was it the biggest kiss you've ever had?'
'The biggest in at least four years,' I said. 'Will you settle for that?' And if she didn't step away from me in the next few seconds, she was going to have physical proof of how much I had enjoyed it.
'I guess I'll have to.' She turned to the redheaded guy with a funny kind of defiance. 'Was that all right?'
'Probably not,' he said, 'but at least you're not currently in view of those old boys at the All-Purpose Garage. Mike, I'm John Storrow. Nice to meet you in person.'
I liked him at once, maybe because I'd come upon him dressed in his three-piece New York suit and primly setting out paper plates on a picnic table while his curly red hair blew around his head like kelp. His skin was fair and freckled, the kind which would never tan, only burn and then peel in great eczema-like patches. When we shook, his hand seemed to be all knuckles. He had to be at least thirty, but he looked Mattie's age, and I guessed it would be another five years before he was able to get a drink without showing his driver's license.
'Sit down,' he said. 'We've got a five-course lunch, courtesy of Castle Rock Variety ¡ª grinders, which are for some strange reason called 'Italian sandwiches' up here . . . mozzarella sticks . . . garlic fries . . . Twinkies.'
'That's only four,' I said.
'I forgot the soft-drink course,' he said, and pulled three long-neck bottles of S'OK birch beer out of a brown bag. 'Let's eat. Mattie runs the library from two to eight on Fridays and Saturdays, and this would be a bad time for her to be missing work.'
'How did the readers' circle go last night?' I asked. 'Lindy Briggs didn't eat you alive, I see.'
She laughed, clasped her hands, and shook them over her head. 'I was a hit! An absolute smashola! I didn't dare tell them I got all my best insights from you ¡ª '
'Thank God for small favors,' Storrow said. He was freeing his own sandwich from its string and butcher-paper wrapping, doing it carefully and a little dubiously, using just the tips of his fingers.
' ¡ª so I said I looked in a couple of books and found some leads there. It was sort of wonderful. I felt like a college kid.'
'Bissonette?' John Storrow asked. 'Where's he? I never met a guy named Romeo before.'
'Said he had to go right back to Lewiston. Sorry.'
'Actually it's best we stay small, at least to begin with.' He bit into his sandwich ¡ª they come tucked into long sub rolls ¡ª and looked at me, surprised. 'This isn't bad.'
'Eat more than three and you're hooked for life,' Mattie said, and chomped heartily into her own.
'Tell us about the depo,' John said, and while they ate, I talked. When I finished, I picked up my own sandwich and played a little catch-up. I'd forgotten how good an Italian can be ¡ª sweet, sour, and oily all at the same time. Of course nothing that tastes that good can be healthy; that's a given. I suppose one could formulate a similar postulate about full-body hugs from young girls in legal trouble.
'Very interesting,' John said. 'Very interesting indeed.' He took a mozzarella stick from its grease-stained bag, broke it open, and looked with a kind of fascinated horror at the clotted white gunk inside. 'People up here eat this?' he asked.
'People in New York eat fish-bladders,' I said. 'Raw.'
'Touch¨¦' He dipped a piece into the plastic container of spaghetti sauce (in this context it is called 'cheese-dip' in western Maine), then ate it.
'Well?' I asked.
'Not bad. They ought to be a lot hotter, though.'
Yes, he was right about that. Eating cold mozzarella sticks is a little like eating cold snot, an observation I thought I would keep to myself on this beautiful midsummer Friday.
'If Durgin had the tape, why wouldn't he play it?' Mattie asked. 'I don't understand.'
John stretched his arms out, cracked his knuckles, and looked at her benignly. 'We'll probably never know for sure,' he said.
He thought Devore was going to drop the suit ¡ª it was in every line of his body-language and every inflection of his voice. That was hopeful, but it would be good if Mattie didn't allow herself to become too hopeful. John Storrow wasn't as young as he looked, and probably not as guileless, either (or so I fervently hoped), but he was young. And neither he nor Mattie knew the story of Scooter Larribee's sled. Or had seen Bill Dean's face when he told it.
'Want to hear some possibilities?'
'Sure,' I said.
John put down his sandwich, wiped his fingers, and then began to tick off points. 'First, he made the call. Taped conversations have a highly dubious value under those circumstances. Second, he didn't exactly come off like Captain Kangaroo, did he?'
'Third, your fabrication impugns you, Mike, but not really very much, and it doesn't impugn Mattie at all. And by the way, that thing about Mattie pushing bubbles in Kyra's face, I love that. If that's the best they can do, they better give it up right now. Last ¡ª and this is where the truth probably lies ¡ª I think Devore's got Nixon's Disease.'
'Nixon's Disease?' Mattie asked.
'The tape Durgin had isn't the only tape. Can't be. And your father-in-law is afraid that if he introduces one tape made by whatever system he's got in Warrington's, we might subpoena all of them. And I'd damn well try.'
She looked bewildered. 'What could be on them? And if it's bad, why not just destroy them?'
'Maybe he can't,' I said. 'Maybe he needs them for other reasons.'
'It doesn't really matter,' John said. 'Durgin was bluffing, and that's what matters.' He hit the heel of his hand lightly against the picnic table. 'I think he's going to drop it. I really do.'
'It's too early to start thinking like that,' I said at once, but I could tell by Mattie's face ¡ª shining more brightly than ever ¡ª that the damage was done.
'Fill him in on what else you've been doing,' Mattie told John. 'Then I've got to get to the library.'
'Where do you send Kyra on your workdays?' I asked.
'Mrs. Cullum's. She lives two miles up the Wasp Hill Road. Also in July there's VBS from ten until three. That's Vacation Bible School. Ki loves it, especially the singing and the flannel-board stories about Noah and Moses. The bus drops her off at Arlene's, and I pick her up around quarter of nine.' She smiled a little wistfully. 'By then she's usually fast asleep on the couch.'
John held forth for the next ten minutes or so. He hadn't been on the case long, but had already started a lot of balls rolling. A fellow in California was gathering facts about Roger Devore and Morris Ridding ('gathering facts' sounded so much better than 'snooping'). John was particularly interested in learning about the quality of Roger Devore's relations with his father, and if Roger was on record concerning his little niece from Maine. John had also mapped out a campaign to learn as much as possible about Max Devore's movements and activities since he'd come back to TR-90. To that end he had the name of a private investigator, one recommended by Romeo Bissonette, my rent-a-lawyer.
As he spoke, paging rapidly through a little notebook he drew from the inside pocket of his suitcoat, I remembered what he'd said about Lady Justice during our telephone conversation: Slap some handcuffs on that broad's wrists and some tape over her mouth to go along with the blindfold, rape her and roll her in the mud. That was maybe a bit too strong for what we were doing, but I thought at the very least we were shoving her around a little. I imagined poor Roger Devore up on the stand, having flown three thousand miles in order to be questioned about his sexual preferences. I had to keep reminding myself that his father had put him in that position, not Mattie or me or John Storrow.
'Have you gotten any closer to a meeting with Devore and his chief legal advisor?' I asked.
'Don't know for sure. The line is in the water, the offer is on the table, the puck's on the ice, pick your favorite metaphor, mix em and match em if you desire.'
'Got your irons in the fire,' Mattie said.
'Your checkers on the board,' I added.
We looked at each other and laughed. John regarded us sadly, then sighed, picked up his sandwich, and began to eat again.
'You really have to meet him with his lawyer more or less dancing attendance?' I asked.
'Would you like to win this thing, then discover Devore can do it all again based on unethical behavior by Mary Devore's legal resource?' John returned.
'Don't even joke about it!' Mattie cried.
'I wasn't joking,' John said. 'It has to be with his lawyer, yes. I don't think it's going to happen, not on this trip. I haven't even got a look at the old cockuh, and I have to tell you my curiosity is killing me.'
'If that's all it takes to make you happy, show up behind the backstop at the softball field next Tuesday evening,' Mattie said. 'He'll be there in his fancy wheelchair, laughing and clapping and sucking his damned old oxygen every fifteen minutes or so.'
'Not a bad idea,' John said. 'I have to go back to New York for the weekend ¡ª I'm leaving apr¨¨s Osgood ¡ª but maybe I'll show up on Tuesday. I might even bring my glove.' He began clearing up our litter, and once again I thought he looked both prissy and endearing at the same time, like Stan Laurel wearing an apron. Mattie eased him aside and took over.
'No one ate any Twinkles,' she said, a little sadly.
'Take them home to your daughter,' John said.
'No way. I don't let her eat stuff like this. What kind of mother do you think I am?' She saw our expressions, replayed what she'd just said, then burst out laughing. We joined her.
Mattie's old Scout was parked in one of the slant spaces behind the war memorial, which in Castle Rock is a World War I soldier with a generous helping of birdshit on his pie-dish helmet. A brand-new Taurus with a Hertz decal above the inspection sticker was parked next to it. John tossed his briefcase ¡ª reassuringly thin and not very ostentatious ¡ª into the back seat.
'If I can make it back on Tuesday, I'll call you,' he told Mattie. 'If I'm able to get an appointment with your father-in-law through this man Osgood, I will also call you.'
'I'll buy the Italian sandwiches,' Mattie said.
He smiled, then grasped her arm in one hand and mine in the other. He looked like a newly ordained minister getting ready to marry his first couple.
'You two talk on the telephone if you need to,' he said, 'always remembering that one or both lines may be tapped. Meet in the market if you happen to. Mike, you might feel a need to drop by the local library and check out a book.'
'Not until you renew your card, though,' Mattie said, giving me a demure glance.
'But no more visits to Mattie's trailer. Is that understood?'
I said yes; she said yes; John Storrow looked unconvinced. It made me wonder if he was seeing something in our faces or bodies that shouldn't be there.
'They are committed to a line of attack which probably isn't going to work,' he said. 'We can't risk giving them the chance to change course. That means innuendos about the two of you; it also means innuendos about Mike and Kyra.'
Mattie's shocked expression made her look twelve again. 'Mike and Kyra! What are you talking about?'
'Allegations of child molestation thrown up by people so desperate they'll try anything.'
'That's ridiculous,' she said. 'And if my father-in-law wanted to sling that kind of mud ¡ª '
John nodded. 'Yes, we'd be obligated to sling it right back. Newspaper coverage from coast to coast would follow, maybe even Court TV, God bless and save us. We want none of that if we can avoid it. It's not good for the grownups, and it's not good for the child. Now or later.'
He bent and kissed Mattie's cheek.
'I'm sorry about all this,' he said, and he did sound genuinely sorry. 'Custody's just this way.'
'I think you warned me. It's just that . . . the idea someone might make a thing like that up just because there was no other way for them to win . . . '
'Let me warn you again,' he said. His face came as close to grim as its young and good-natured features would probably allow. 'What we have is a very rich man with a very shaky case. The combination could be like working with old dynamite.'
I turned to Mattie. 'Are you still worried about Ki? Still feel she's in danger?'
I saw her think about hedging her response ¡ª out of plain old Yankee reserve, quite likely ¡ª and then deciding not to. Deciding, perhaps, that hedging was a luxury she couldn't afford.
'Yes. But it's just a feeling, you know.'
John was frowning. I supposed the idea that Devore might resort to extralegal means of obtaining what he wanted had occurred to him, as well. 'Keep your eye on her as much as you can,' he said. 'I respect intuition. Is yours based on anything concrete?'
'No,' Mattie answered, and her quick glance in my direction asked me to keep my mouth shut. 'Not really.' She opened the Scout's door and tossed in the little brown bag with the Twinkies in it ¡ª she had decided to keep them after all. Then she turned to John and me with an expression that was close to anger. 'I'm not sure how to follow that advice, anyway. I work five days a week, and in August, when we do the microfiche update, it'll be six. Right now Ki gets her lunch at Vacation Bible School and her dinner from Arlene Cullum. I see her in the mornings. The rest of the time . . . '
I knew what she was going to say before she said it; the expression was an old one. ' . . . she's on the TR.'
'I could help you find an au pair,' I said, thinking it would be a hell of a lot cheaper than John Storrow.
'No,' they said in such perfect unison that they glanced at each other and laughed. But even while she was laughing, Mattie looked tense and unhappy.
'We're not going to leave a paper trail for Durgin or Devore's custody team to exploit,' John said. 'Who pays me is one thing. Who pays Mattie's child-care help is another.'
'Besides, I've taken enough from you,' Mattie said. 'More than I can sleep easy on. I'm not going to get in any deeper just because I've been having megrims.' She climbed into the Scout and closed the door.
I rested my hands on her open window. Now we were on the same level, and the eye-contact was so strong it was disconcerting. 'Mattie, I don't have anything else to spend it on. Really.'
'When it comes to John's fee, I accept that. Because John's fee is about Ki.' She put her hand over mine and squeezed briefly. 'This other is about me. All right?'
'Yeah. But you need to tell your babysitter and the people who run this Bible thing that you've got a custody case on your hands, a potentially bitter one, and Kyra's not to go anywhere with anyone, even someone they know, without your say-so.'
She smiled. 'It's already been done. On John's advice. Stay in touch, Mike.' She lifted my hand, gave it a hearty smack, and drove away.
'What do you think?' I asked John as we watched the Scout blow oil on its way to the new Prouty Bridge, which spans Castle Street and spills outbound traffic onto Highway 68.
'I think it's grand she has a well-heeled benefactor and a smart lawyer,' John said. He paused, then added: 'But I'll tell you some-thing ¡ª she somehow doesn't feel lucky to me at all. There's a feeling I get . . . I don't know . . . '
'That there's a cloud around her you can't quite see.'
'Maybe. Maybe that's it.' He raked his hands through the restless mass of his red hair. 'I just know it's something sad.'
I knew exactly what he meant . . . except for me there was more. I wanted to be in bed with her, sad or not, right or not. I wanted to feel her hands on me, tugging and pressing, patting and stroking. I wanted to be able to smell her skin and taste her hair. I wanted to have her lips against my ear, her breath tickling the fine hairs within its cup as she told me to do what I wanted, whatever I wanted.
I got back to Sara Laughs shortly before two o'clock and let myself in, thinking about nothing but my study and the IBM with the Courier ball. I was writing again ¡ª writing. I could still hardly believe it. I'd work (not that it felt much like work after a four-year layoff) until maybe six o'clock, swim, then go down to the Village Cafe for one of Buddy's cholesterol-rich specialties.
The moment I stepped through the door, Bunter's bell began to ring stridently. I stopped in the foyer, my hand frozen on the knob. The house was hot and bright, not a shadow anywhere, but the gooseflesh forming on my arms felt like midnight.
'Who's here?' I called. The bell stopped ringing. There was a moment of silence, and then a woman shrieked. It came from everywhere, pouring out of the sunny, mote-laden air like sweat out of hot skin. It was a scream of outrage, anger, grief . . . but mostly, I think, of horror. And I screamed in response. I couldn't help it. I had been frightened standing in the dark cellar stairwell, listening to the unseen fist thump on the insulation, but this was far worse.
It never stopped, that scream. It faded, as the child's sobs had faded; faded as if the person screaming was being carried rapidly down a long corridor and away from me.
At last it was gone.
I leaned against the bookcase, my palm pressed against my tee-shirt, my heart galloping beneath it. I was gasping for breath, and my muscles had that queer exploded feel they get after you've had a bad scare.
A minute passed. My heartbeat gradually slowed, and my breathing slowed with it. I straightened up, took a tottery step, and when my legs held me, took two more. I stood in the kitchen doorway, looking across to the living room. Above the fireplace, Bunter the moose looked glassily back at me. The bell around his neck hung still and chimeless. A hot sunpoint glowed on its side. The only sound was that stupid Felix the Cat clock in the kitchen.
The thought nagging at me, even then, was that the screaming woman had been Jo, that Sara Laughs was being haunted by my wife, and that she was in pain. Dead or not, she was in pain.
'Jo?' I asked quietly. 'Jo, are you ¡ª '
The sobbing began again ¡ª the sound of a terrified child. At the same moment my mouth and nose once more filled with the iron taste of the lake. I put one hand to my throat, gagging and frightened, then leaned over the sink and spat. It was as it had been before ¡ª instead of voiding a gush of water, nothing came out but a little spit. The waterlogged feeling was gone as if it had never been there.
I stayed where I was, grasping the counter and bent over the sink, probably looking like a drunk who has finished the party by upchucking most of the night's bottled cheer. I felt like that, too ¡ª stunned and bleary, too overloaded to really understand what was going on.
At last I straightened up again, took the towel folded over the dishwasher's handle, and wiped my face with it. There was tea in the fridge, and I wanted a tall, ice-choked glass of it in the worst way. I reached for the doorhandle and froze.
The fruit and vegetable magnets were drawn into a circle again. In the center was this:
help im drown
That's it, I thought. I'm getting out of here. Right now. Today.
Yet an hour later I was up in my stifling study with a glass of tea on the desk beside me (the cubes in it long since melted), dressed only in my bathing trunks and lost in the world I was making ¡ª the one where a private detective named Andy Drake was trying to prove that John Shackleford was not the serial killer nicknamed Baseball Cap.
This is how we go on: one day at a time, one meal at a time, one pain at a time, one breath at a time. Dentists go on one root-canal at a time; boat-builders go on one hull at a time. If you write books, you go on one page at a time. We turn from all we know and all we fear. We study catalogues, watch football games, choose Sprint over AT&T. We count the birds in the sky and will not turn from the window when we hear the footsteps behind us as something comes up the hall; we say yes, I agree that clouds often look like other things ¡ª fish and unicorns and men on horseback ¡ª but they are really only clouds. Even when the lightning flashes inside them we say they are only clouds and turn our attention to the next meal, the next pain, the next breath, the next page. This is how we go on.