Inspiration isn't always a matter of ghosts moving magnets around on refrigerator doors, and on Tuesday morning I had a flash that was a beaut. It came while I was shaving and thinking about nothing more than remembering the beer for the party. And like the best inspirations, it came out of nowhere at all.
I hurried into the living room, not quite running, wiping the shaving cream off my face with a towel as I went. I glanced briefly at the Tough Stuff crossword collection lying on top of my manuscript. That had been where I'd gone first in an effort to decipher 'go down nineteen' and 'go down ninety-two.' Not an unreasonable starting-point, but what did Tough Stuff have to do with TR-90? I had purchased the book at Mr. Paperback in Derry, and of the thirty or so puzzles I'd completed, I'd done all but half a dozen in Derry. TR ghosts could hardly be expected to show an interest in my Derry crossword collection. The telephone book, on the other hand ¡ª
I snatched it off the dining-room table. Although it covered the whole southern part of Castle County ¡ª Motton, Harlow, and Kashwakamak as well as the TR ¡ª it was pretty thin. The first thing I did was check the white pages to see if there were at least ninety-two. There were. The Y's and Z's finished up on page ninety-seven.
This was the answer. Had to be.
'I got it, didn't I?' I asked Bunter. 'This is it.'
Nothing. Not even a tinkle from the bell.
'Fuck you ¡ª what does a stuffed moosehead know about a telephone book?'
Go down nineteen. I turned to page nineteen of the telephone book, where the letter F was prominently showcased. I began to slip my finger down the first column and as it went, my excitement faded. The nineteenth name on page nineteen was Harold Failles. It meant nothing to me. There were also Feltons and Fenners, a Filkersham and several Finneys, half a dozen Flahertys and more Fosses than you could shake a stick at. The last name on page nineteen was Framingham. It also meant nothing to me, but ¡ª
Framingham, Kenneth P.
I stared at that for a moment. A realization began to dawn. It had nothing to do with the refrigerator messages.
You're not seeing what you think you're seeing, I thought. This is like when you buy a blue Buick ¡ª
'You see blue Buicks everywhere,' I said. 'Practically got to kick em out of your way. Yeah, that's it.' But my hands were shaking as I turned to page ninety-two.
Here were the T's of southern Castle County, along with a few U's like Alton Ubeck and Catherine Udell just to round things out. I didn't bother checking the ninety-second entry on the page; the phone book wasn't the key to the magnetic crosspatches after all. It did, however, suggest something enormous. I closed the book, just held it in my hands for a moment (happy folks with blueberry rakes on the front cover), then opened it at random, this time to the M's. And once you knew what you were looking for, it jumped right out at you.
All those K's.
Oh, there were Stevens and Johns and Marthas; there was Meserve, G., and Messier, V., and Jayhouse, T. And yet, again and again, I saw the initial K where people had exercised their right not to list their first name in the book. There were at least twenty K-initials on page fifty alone, and another dozen C-initials. As for the actual names themselves . . .
There were twelve Kenneths on this random page in the M-section, including three Kenneth Moores and two Kenneth Munters. There were four Catherines and two Katherines. There were a Casey, a Kiana, and a Kiefer.
'Holy Christ, it's like fallout,' I whispered.
I thumbed through the book, not able to believe what I was seeing and seeing it anyway. Kenneths, Katherines, and Keiths were everywhere. I also saw Kimberly, Kim, and Kym. There were Cammie, Kia (yes, and we had thought ourselves so original), Kiah, Kendra, Kaela, Keil, and Kyle. Kirby and Kirk. There was a woman named Kissy Bowden, and a man named Kito Rennie ¡ª Kito, the same name as one of Kyra's fridgeafator people. And everywhere, outnumbering such usually common initials as S and T and E, were those K's. My eyes danced with them.
I turned to look at the clock ¡ª didn't want to stand John Storrow up at the airport, Christ no ¡ª and there was no clock there. Of course not. Old Krazy Kat had popped his peepers during a psychic event. I gave a loud, braying laugh that scared me a little ¡ª it wasn't particularly sane.
'Get hold of yourself, Mike,' I said. 'Take a deep breath, son.'
I took the breath. Held it. Let it out. Checked the digital readout on the microwave. Quarter past eight. Plenty of time for John. I turned back to the telephone book and began to riffle rapidly through it. I'd had a second inspiration ¡ª not a megawatt blast like the first one, but a lot more accurate, it turned out.
Western Maine is a relatively isolated area ¡ª it's a little like the hill country of the border South ¡ª but there has always been at least some inflow of folks from away ('flatlanders' is the term the locals use when they are feeling contemptuous), and in the last quarter of the century it has become a popular area for active seniors who want to fish and ski their way through retirement. The phone book goes a long way toward separating the newbies from the long-time residents. Babickis, Parettis, O'Quindlans, Donahues, Smolnacks, Dvoraks, Blindermeyers ¡ª all from away. All flatlanders. Jalberts, Meserves, Pillsburys, Spruces, Therriaults, Perraults, Stanchfields, Starbirds, Dubays ¡ª all from Castle County. You see what I'm saying, don't you? When you see a whole column of Bowies on page twelve, you know that those folks have been around long enough to relax and really spread those Bowie genes.
There were a few K-initials and K-names among the Parettis and the Smolnacks, but only a few. The heavy concentrations were all attached to families that had been here long enough to absorb the atmosphere. To breathe the fallout. Except it wasn't radiation, exactly, it ¡ª
I suddenly imagined a black headstone taller than the tallest tree on the lake, a monolith which cast its shadow over half of Castle County. This picture was so clear and so terrible that I covered my eyes, dropping the phone book on the table. I backed away from it, shuddering. Hiding my eyes actually seemed to enhance the image further: a grave-marker so enormous it blotted out the sun; TR-90 lay at its foot like a funeral bouquet. Sara Tidwell's son had drowned in Dark Score Lake . . . or been drowned in it. But she had marked his passing. Memorialized it. I wondered if anyone else in town had ever noticed what I just had. I didn't suppose it was all that likely; when you open a telephone book you're looking for a specific name in most cases, not reading whole pages line by line. I wondered if Jo had noticed ¡ª if she'd known that almost every longtime family in this part of the world had, in one way or another, named at least one child after Sara Tidwell's dead son.
Jo wasn't stupid. I thought she probably had.
I returned to the bathroom, relathered, started again from scratch. When I finished, I went back to the phone and picked it up. I poked in three numbers, then stopped, looking out at the lake. Mattie and Ki were up and in the kitchen, both of them wearing aprons, both of them in a fine froth of excitement. There was going to be a party! They would wear pretty new summer clothes, and there would be music from Mattie's boombox CD player! Ki was helping Mattie make biscuits for strewberry snortcake, and while the biscuits were baking they would make salads. If I called Mattie up and said Pack a couple of bags, you and Ki are going to spend a week at Disney World, Mattie would assume I was joking, then tell me to hurry up and finish getting dressed so I'd be at the airport when John's plane landed. If I pressed, she'd remind me that Lindy had offered her her old job back, but the offer would close in a hurry if Mattie didn't show up promptly at two P.M. on Friday. If I continued to press, she would just say no.
Because I wasn't the only one in the zone, was I? I wasn't the only one who was really feeling it.
I returned the phone to its recharging cradle, then went back into the north bedroom. By the time I'd finished dressing, my fresh shirt was already feeling wilted under the arms; it was as hot that morning as it had been for the last week, maybe even hotter. But I'd be in plenty of time to meet the plane. I had never felt less like partying, but I'd be there. Mikey on the spot, that was me. Mikey on the goddam spot.
John hadn't given me his flight number, but at Castle County Airport, such niceties are hardly necessary. This bustling hub of transport consists of three hangars and a terminal which used to be a Flying A gas station ¡ª when the light's strong on the little building's rusty north side, you can still see the shape of that winged A. There's one runway. Security is provided by Lassie, Breck Pellerin's ancient collie, who spends her days crashed out on the linoleum floor, cocking an ear at the ceiling whenever a plane lands or takes off.
I popped my head into Pellerin's office and asked him if the ten from Boston was on time. He said it 'twas, although he hoped the paa'ty I was meetin planned to either fly back out before mid-afternoon or stay the night. Bad weather was comin in, good gorry, yes. What Breck Pellerin referred to as 'lectrical weather. I knew exactly what he meant, because in my nervous system that electricity already seemed to have arrived.
I went out to the runway side of the terminal and sat on a bench advertising Cormier's Market (FLY INTO OUR DELI FOR THE BEST MEATS IN MAINE). The sun was a silver button stuck on the eastern slope of a hot white sky. Headache weather, my mother would have called it, but the weather was due to change. I would hold onto the hope of that change as best I could.
At ten past ten I heard a wasp-whine from the south. At quarter past, some sort of twin-engine plane dropped out of the murk, flopped onto the runway, and taxied toward the terminal. There were only four passengers, and John Storrow was the first one off. I grinned when I saw him. I had to grin. He was wearing a black tee-shirt with WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS printed across the front and a pair of khaki shorts which displayed a perfect set of city shins: white and bony. He was trying to manage both a Styrofoam cooler and a briefcase. I grabbed the cooler maybe four seconds before he dropped it, and tucked it under my arm.
'Mike!' he cried, lifting one hand palm out.
'John!' I returned in much the same spirit (evoe is the word that comes immediately to the crossword aficionado's mind), and slapped him five. His homely-handsome face split in a grin, and I felt a little stab of guilt. Mattie had expressed no preference for John ¡ª quite the opposite, in fact ¡ª and he really hadn't solved any of her problems; Devore had done that by topping himself before John had so much as a chance to get started on her behalf. Yet still I felt that nasty little poke.
'Come on,' he said. 'Let's get out of this heat. You have air conditioning in your car, I presume?'
'What about a cassette player? You got one of those? If you do, I'll play you something that'll make you chortle.'
'I don't think I've ever heard that word actually used in conversation, John.'
The grin shone out again, and I noticed what a lot of freckles he had. Sheriff Andy's boy Opie grows up to serve at the bar. 'I'm a lawyer. I use words in conversation that haven't even been invented yet. You have a tape-player?'
'Of course I do.' I hefted the cooler. 'Steaks?'
'You bet. Peter Luger's. They're ¡ª '
' ¡ª the best in the world. You told me.'
As we went into the terminal, someone said, 'Michael?'
It was Romeo Bissonette, the lawyer who had chaperoned me through my deposition. In one hand he had a box wrapped in blue paper and tied with a white ribbon. Beside him, just rising from one of the lumpy chairs, was a tall guy with a fringe of gray hair. He was wearing a brown suit, a blue shirt, and a string tie with a golf-club on the clasp. He looked more like a farmer on auction day than the sort of guy who'd be a scream when you got a drink or two into him, but I had no doubt this was the private detective. He stepped over the comatose collie and shook hands with me. 'George Kennedy, Mr. Noonan. I'm pleased to meet you. My wife has read every single book you ever wrote.'
'Well thank her for me.'
'I will. I have one in the car ¡ª a hardcover . . . ' He looked shy, as so many people do when they get right to the point of asking. 'I wonder if you'd sign it for her at some point.'
'I'd be delighted to,' I said. 'Right away's best, then I won't forget.' I turned to Romeo. 'Good to see you, Romeo.'
'Make it Rommie,' he said. 'Good to see you, too.' He held out the box. 'George and I clubbed together on this. We thought you deserved something nice for helping a damsel in distress.'
Kennedy now did look like a man who might be fun after a few drinks. The kind who might just take a notion to hop onto the nearest table, turn a tablecloth into a kilt, and dance. I looked at John, who gave the kind of shrug that means hey, don't ask me.
I pulled off the satin bow, slipped my finger under the Scotch tape holding the paper, then looked up. I caught Rommie Bissonette in the act of elbowing Kennedy. Now they were both grinning.
'There's nothing in here that's going to jump out at me and go booga-booga, is there, guys?' I asked.
'Absolutely not,' Rommie said, but his grin widened.
Well, I can be as good a sport as the next guy. I guess. I unwrapped the package, opened the plain white box inside, revealed a square pad of cotton, lifted it out. I had been smiling all through this, but now I felt the smile curl up and die on my mouth. Something went twisting up my spine as well, and I think I came very close to dropping the box.
It was the oxygen mask Devore had had on his lap when he met me on The Street, the one he'd snorted from occasionally as he and Rogette paced me, trying to keep me out deep enough to drown. Rommie Bissonette and George Kennedy had brought it to me like the scalp of a dead enemy and I was supposed to think it was funny ¡ª
'Mike?' Rommie asked anxiously. 'Mike, are you okay? It was just a joke ¡ª '
I blinked and saw it wasn't an oxygen mask at all ¡ª how in God's name could I have been so stupid? For one thing, it was bigger than Devore's mask; for another, it was made of opaque rather than clear plastic. It was ¡ª
I gave a tentative chuckle. Rommie Bissonette looked tremendously relieved. So did Kennedy. John only looked puzzled.
'Funny,' I said. 'Like a rubber crutch.' I pulled out the little mike from inside the mask and let it dangle. It swung back and forth on its wire, reminding me of the waggy clock's tail.
'What the hell is it?' John asked.
'Park Avenue lawyer,' Rommie said to George, broadening his accent so it came out Paa-aak Avenew lawyah. 'Ain't nevah seen one of these, have ya, chummy? Nossir, coss not.' Then he reverted to normal-speak, which was sort of a relief. I've lived in Maine my whole life, and for me the amusement value of burlesque Yankee accents has worn pretty thin. 'It's a Stenomask. The stenog keeping the record at Mike's depo was wearing one. Mike kept looking at him ¡ª '
'It freaked me out,' I said. 'Old guy sitting in the corner and mumbling into the Mask of Zorro.'
'Gerry Bliss freaks a lot of people out,' Kennedy said. He spoke in a low rumble. 'He's the last one around here who wears em. He's got ten or eleven left in his mudroom. I know, because I bought that one from him.'
'I hope he stuck it to you,' I said.
'I thought it would make a nice memento,' Rommie said, 'but for a second there I thought I'd given you the box with the severed hand in it ¡ª I hate it when I mix up my gift-boxes like that. What's the deal?'
'It's been a long hot July,' I said. 'Put it down to that.' I hung the Stenomask's strap over one finger, dangling it that way.
'Mattie said to be there by eleven,' John told us. 'We're going to drink beer and throw the Frisbee around.'
'I can do both of those things quite well,' George Kennedy said.
Outside in the tiny parking lot George went to a dusty Altima, rummaged in the back, and came out with a battered copy of The Red-Shirt Man. 'Frieda made me bring this one. She has the newer ones, but this is her favorite. Sorry about how it looks ¡ª she's read it about six times.'
II 'It's my favorite, too,' I said, which was true. 'And I like to see a book with mileage.' That was also true. I opened the book, looked approvingly at a smear of long-dried chocolate on the flyleaf, and then wrote: For Frieda Kennedy, whose husband was there to lend a hand. Thanks for sharing him, and thanks For reading, Mike Noonan.
That was a long inscription for me ¡ª usually I just stick to Best wishes or Good luck, but I wanted to make up for the curdled expression they had seen on my face when I opened their innocent little gag present. While I was scribbling, George asked me if I was working on a new novel.
'No,' I said. 'Batteries currently on recharge.' I handed the book back.
'Frieda won't like that.'
'No. But there's always Red-Shirt.'
'We'll follow you,' Rommie said, and a rumble came from deep in the west. It was no louder than the thunder which had rumbled on and off for the last week, but this wasn't dry thunder. We all knew it, and we all looked in that direction.
'Think we'll get a chance to eat before it storms?' George asked me.
'Yeah. Just about barely.'
I drove to the gate of the parking lot and glanced right to check for traffic. When I did, I saw John looking at me thoughtfully.
'Mattie said you were writing, that's all. Book go tits-up on you or something?'
My Childhood Friend was just as lively as ever, in fact . . . but it would never be finished. I knew that this morning as well as I knew there was rain on the way. The boys in the basement had for some reason decided to take it back. Asking why might not be such a good idea ¡ª the answers might be unpleasant.
'Something. I'm not sure just what.' I pulled out onto the highway, checked behind me, and saw Rommie and George following in George's little Altima. America has become a country full of big men in little cars. 'What do you want me to listen to? If it's home karaoke, I pass. The last thing on earth I want to hear is you singing "Bubba Shot the Jukebox Last Night."'
'Oh, it's better than that,' he said. 'Miles better.'
He opened his briefcase, rooted through it, and came out with a plastic cassette box. The tape inside was marked 7-20-98 ¡ª yesterday. 'I love this,' he said. He leaned forward, turned on the radio, then popped the cassette into the player.
I was hoping I'd already had my quota of nasty surprises for the morning, but I was wrong.
'Sorry, I just had to get rid of another call,' John said from my Chevy's speakers in his smoothest, most lawyerly voice. I'd have bet a million dollars that his bony shins hadn't been showing when this tape was made.
There was a laugh, both smoky and grating. My stomach seized up at the sound of it. I remembered seeing her for the first time standing outside The Sunset Bar, wearing black shorts over a black tank-style swimsuit. Standing there and looking like a refugee from crash-diet hell.
'You mean you had to turn on your tape-recorder,' she said, and now I remembered how the water had seemed to change color when she nailed me that really good one in the back of the head. From bright orange to dark scarlet it had gone. And then I'd started drinking the lake. 'That's okay. Tape anything you want.'
John reached out suddenly and ejected the cassette. 'You don't need to hear this,' he said. 'It's not substantive. I thought you'd get a kick out of her blather, but . . . man, you look terrible. Do you want me to drive? You're white as a fucking sheet.'
'I can drive,' I said. 'Go on, play it. Afterward I'll tell you about a little adventure I had Friday night . . . but you're going to keep it to yourself. They don't have to know' ¡ª I jerked my thumb over my shoulder at the Altima ¡ª 'and Mattie doesn't have to know. Especially Mattie.'
He reached for the tape, then hesitated. 'You're sure?'
'Yeah. It was just hearing her again out of the blue like that. The quality of her voice. Christ, the reproduction is good.'
'Nothing but the best for Avery, McLain, and Bernstein. We have very strict protocols about what we can tape, by the way. If you were wondering.'
'I wasn't. I imagine none of it's admissible in litigation anyway, is it?'
'In certain rare cases a judge might let a tape in, but that's not why we do it. A tape like this saved a man's life four years ago, right around the time I joined the firm. That guy is now in the Witness Protection Program.'
He leaned forward and pushed the button.
John: 'How is the desert, Ms. Whitmore?'
John: 'Arrangements progressing nicely? I know how difficult times like this can ¡ª '
Whitmore: 'You know very little, counsellor, take it from me. Can we cut the crap?'
John: 'Consider it cut.'
Whitmore: 'Have you conveyed the conditions of Mr. Devore's will to his daughter-in-law?'
John: 'Yes ma'am.'
Whitmore: 'Her response?'
John: 'I have none to give you now. I may have after Mr. Devore's will has been probated. But surely you know that such codicils are rarely if ever accepted by the courts.'
Whitmore: 'Well, if that little lady moves out of town, we'll see, won't we?'
John: 'I suppose we will.'
Whitmore: 'When is the victory party?'
John: 'Excuse me?'
Whitmore: 'Oh please. I have sixty different appointments today, plus a boss to bury tomorrow. You're going up there to celebrate with her and her daughter, aren't you? Did you know she's invited the writer? Her fuck-buddy?'
John turned to me gleefully. 'Do you hear how pissed she sounds? She's trying to hide it, but she can't. It's eating her up inside!'
I barely heard him. I was in the zone with what she was saying
(the writer her fuck-buddy)
and what was under what she was saying. Some quality beneath the words. We just want to see how long you can swim, she had called out to me.
John: 'I hardly think what I or Mattie's friends do is any of your business, Ms Whitmore. May I respectfully suggest that you party with your friends and let Mattie Devore party with h ¡ª
Whitmore: 'Give him a message.'
Me. She was talking about me. Then I realized it was even more personal than that ¡ª she was talking to me. Her body might be on the other side of the country, but her voice and spiteful spirit were right here in the car with us.
And Max Devore's will. Not the meaningless shit his lawyers had put down on paper but his will. The old bastard was as dead as Damocles, but yes, he was definitely still seeking custody.
John: 'Give who a message, Ms. Whitmore?'
Whitmore: 'Tell him he never answered Mr. Devore's question.'
John: 'What question is that?'
Does her cunt suck?
Whitmore: 'Ask him. He'll know.'
John: 'If you mean Mike Noonan, you can ask him yourself. You'll see him in Castle County Probate Court this fall.'
Whitmore: 'I hardly think so. Mr. Devore's will was made and witnessed out here.'
John: 'Nevertheless, it will be probated in Maine, where he died. My heart is set on it. And when you leave Castle County the next time, Rogette, you will do so with your education in matters of the law considerably broadened.'
For the first time she sounded angry, her voice rising to a reedy caw.
Whitmore: 'If you think ¡ª '
John: 'I don't think. I know. Goodbye, Ms. Whitmore.'
Whitmore: 'You might do well to stay away from ¡ª '
There was a click, the hum of an open line, then a robot voice saying 'Nine-forty A.M. . . . Eastern Daylight . . . July . . . twentieth.' John punched EJECT, collected his tape, and stored it back in his briefcase.
'I hung up on her.' He sounded like a man telling you about his first skydive. 'I actually did. She was mad, wasn't she? Wouldn't you say she was seriously pissed?'
'Yeah.' It was what he wanted to hear but not what I really believed. Pissed, yes. Seriously pissed? Maybe not. Because Mattie's location and state of mind hadn't been her concern; Rogette had called to talk to me. To tell me she was thinking of me. To bring back memories of how it felt to tread water with the back of your head gushing blood. To freak me out. And she had succeeded.
'What was the question you didn't answer?' John asked me.
'I don't know what she meant by that,' I said, 'but I can tell you why hearing her turned me a little white in the gills. If you can be discreet, and if you want to hear.'
'We've got eighteen miles to cover; lay it on me.'
I told him about Friday night. I didn't clutter my version with visions or psychic phenomena; there was just Michael Noonan out for a sunset walk along The Street. I'd been standing by a birch tree which hung over the lake, watching the sun drop toward the mountains, when they came up behind me. From the point where Devore charged me with his wheelchair to the point where I finally got back onto solid ground, I stuck pretty much to the truth.
When I finished, John was at first utterly silent. It was a measure of how thrown for a loop he was; under normal circumstances he was every bit the chatterbox Ki was.
'Well?' I asked. 'Comments? Questions?'
'Lift your hair so I can see behind your ear.'
I did as he asked, revealing a big Band-Aid and a large area of swelling. John leaned forward to study it like a little kid observing his best friend's battle-scar during recess. 'Holy shit,' he said at last.
It was my turn to say nothing.
'Those two old fucks tried to drown you.'
I said nothing.
'They tried to drown you for helping Mattie.'
Now I really said nothing.
'And you never reported it?'
'I started to,' I said, 'then realized I'd make myself look like a whiny little asshole. And a liar, most likely.'
'How much do you think Osgood might know?'
'About them trying to drown me? Nothing. He's just a messenger boy.'
A little more of that unusual quiet from John. After a few seconds of it he reached out and touched the lump on the back of my head.
'Sorry.' A pause. 'Jesus. Then he went back to Warrington's and pulled the pin. Jesus. Michael, I never would have played that tape if I'd known ¡ª '
'It's all right. But don't even think of telling Mattie. I'm wearing my hair over my ear like that for a reason.'
'Will you ever tell her, do you think?'
'I might. Some day when he's been dead long enough so we can laugh about me swimming with my clothes on.'
'That might be awhile,' he said.
'Yeah. It might.'
We drove in silence for a bit. I could sense John groping for a way to bring the day back to jubilation, and loved him for it. He leaned forward, turned on the radio, and found something loud and nasty by Guns 'n Roses ¡ª welcome to the jungle, baby, we got fun and games.
'Party 'til we puke,' he said. 'Right?'
I grinned. It wasn't easy with the sound of the old woman's voice still clinging to me like light slime, but I managed. 'If you insist,' I said.
'I do,' he said. 'Most certainly.'
'John, you're a good guy for a lawyer.'
'And you're a good one for a writer.'
This time the grin on my face felt more natural and stayed on longer. We passed the marker reading TR-90, and as we did, the sun burned through the haze and flooded the day with light. It seemed like an omen of better times ahead, until I looked into the west. There, black in the bright, I could see the thunderheads building up over the White Mountains.