Black House
Chapter Ten

 Stephen King

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AS THE CRUISER with Tom Lund behind the wheel noses down Third Street to Chase ¡ª roof-rack lights decorously dark, siren off ¡ª Dale takes out his wallet and begins digging through the mess in the back: business cards people have given him, a few dog-eared photographs, little licks of folded-over notebook paper. On one of the latter he finds what he wants.
"Whatcha doin', boss?" Tom asks.
"None of your beeswax. Just drive the car."
Dale grabs the phone from its spot on the console, grimaces and wipes off the residue of someone's powdered doughnut, then, without much hope, dials the number of Jack Sawyer's cell phone. He starts to smile when the phone is answered on the fourth ring, but the smile metamorphoses into a frown of puzzlement. He knows that voice and should recognize it, but ¡ª
"Hello?" says the person who has apparently answered Jack's cell phone. "Speak now, whoever you are, or forever hold your peace."
Then Dale knows. Would have known immediately if he had been at home or in his office, but in this context ¡ª
"Henry?" he says, knowing he sounds stupid but not able to help it. "Uncle Henry, is that you?"
Jack is piloting his truck across the Tamarack Bridge when the cell phone in his pants pocket starts its annoying little tweet. He takes it out and taps the back of Henry's hand with it. "Deal with this," he says. "Cell phones give you brain cancer."
"Which is okay for me but not for you."
"More or less, yeah."
"That's what I love about you, Jack," Henry says, and opens the phone with a nonchalant flick of the wrist. "Hello?" And, after a pause: "Speak now, whoever you are, or forever hold your peace." Jack glances at him, then back at the road. They're coming up on Roy's Store, where the early shopper gets the best greens. "Yes, Dale. It is indeed your esteemed ¡ª " Henry listens, frowning a little bit and smiling a little bit. "I'm in Jack's truck, with Jack," he says. "George Rathbun isn't working this morning because KDCU is covering the Summer Marathon over in La Riv ¡ª "
He listens some more, then says: "If it's a Nokia ¡ª which is what it feels like and sounds like ¡ª then it's digital rather than analog. Wait." He looks at Jack. "Your cell," he says. "It's a Nokia?"
"Yes, but why ¡ª "
"Because digital phones are supposedly harder to snoop," Henry says, and goes back to the phone. "It's a digital, and I'll put him on. I'm sure Jack can explain everything." Henry hands him the telephone, folds his hands primly in his lap, and looks out the window exactly as he would if surveying the scenery. And maybe he is, Jack thinks. Maybe in some weird fruit-bat way, he really is.
He pulls over to the shoulder on Highway 93. He doesn't like the cell phone to begin with ¡ª twenty-first-century slave bracelets, he thinks them ¡ª but he absolutely loathes driving while talking on one. Besides, Irma Freneau isn't going anywhere this morning.
"Dale?" he says.
"Where are you?" Dale asks, and Jack knows at once that the Fisherman has been busy elsewhere, too. As long as it's not another dead kid, he thinks. Not that, not yet, please. "How come you're with Henry? Is Fred Marshall there, too?"
Jack tells him about the change in plan, and is about to go on when Dale breaks in.
"Whatever you're doing, I want you to get your ass out to a place called Ed's Eats and Dawgs, near Goltz's. Henry can help you find it. The Fisherman called the station, Jack. He called 911. Told us Irma Freneau's body is out there. Well, not in so many words, but he did say she."
Dale is not quite babbling, but almost. Jack notes this as any good clinician would note the symptoms of a patient.
"I need you, Jack. I really ¡ª "
"That's where we were headed anyway," Jack says quietly, although they are going absolutely nowhere at this moment, just sitting on the shoulder while the occasional car blips past on 93.
Hoping that Dale and Henry are right about the virtues of digital technology, Jack tells French Landing's police chief about his morning delivery, aware that Henry, although still looking out the window, is listening sharply. He tells Dale that Ty Marshall's cap was on top of the box with the feathers and Irma's foot inside it.
"Holy . . ." Dale says, sounding out of breath. "Holy shit."
"Tell me what you've done," Jack says, and Dale does. It sounds pretty good ¡ª so far, at least ¡ª but Jack doesn't like the part about Arnold Hrabowski. The Mad Hungarian has impressed him as the sort of fellow who will never be able to behave like a real cop, no matter how hard he tries. Back in L.A., they used to call the Arnie Hrabowskis of the world Mayberry RFDs.
"Dale, what about the phone at the 7-Eleven?"
"It's a pay phone," Dale says, as if speaking to a child.
"Yes, but there could be fingerprints," Jack says. "I mean, there are going to be billions of fingerprints, but forensics can isolate the freshest. Easily. He might have worn gloves, but maybe not. If he's leaving messages and calling cards as well as writing to the parents, he's gone Stage Two. Killing isn't enough for him anymore. He wants to play you now. Play with you. Maybe he even wants to be caught and stopped, like Son of Sam."
"The phone. Fresh fingerprints on the phone." Dale sounds badly humiliated, and Jack's heart goes out to him. "Jack, I can't do this. I'm lost."
This is something to which Jack chooses not to speak. Instead he says, "Who've you got who can see to the phone?"
"Dit Jesperson and Bobby Dulac, I guess."
Bobby, Jack thinks, is entirely too good to waste for long at the 7-Eleven outside town. "Just have them crisscross the phone with yellow tape and talk to the guy on duty. Then they can come on out to the site."
"Okay." Dale hesitates, then asks a question. The defeat in it, the sense of almost complete abrogation, makes Jack sad. "Anything else?"
"Have you called the State Police? County? Does that FBI guy know? The one who thinks he looks like Tommy Lee Jones?"
Dale snorts. "Uh . . . actually, I'd decided to sit on notification for a little while."
"Good," Jack says, and the savage satisfaction in his voice causes Henry to turn from his blind regard of the countryside and regard his friend instead, eyebrows raised.
Let us rise up again ¡ª on wings as eagles, as the Reverend Lance Hovdahl, French Landing's Lutheran pastor, might say ¡ª and fly down the black ribbon of Highway 93, back toward town. We reach Route 35 and turn right. Closer and to our right is the overgrown lane that leads not to a dragon's hidden gold or secret dwarf mines but to that peculiarly unpleasant black house. A little farther on, we can see the futuristic dome shape of Goltz's (well . . . it seemed futuristic in the seventies, at least). All our landmarks are in place, including the rubbly, weedy path that shoots off from the main road to the left. This is the track that leads to the remains of Ed Gilbertson's erstwhile palace of guilty pleasures.
Let us flutter onto the telephone line just across from this track. Hot gossip tickles our birdy feet: Paula Hrabowski's friend Myrtle Harrington passing on the news of the dead body (or bodies) at Ed's to Richie Bumstead, who will in turn pass it on to Beezer St. Pierre, grieving father and spiritual leader of the Thunder Five. This passage of voices through the wire probably shouldn't please us, but it does. Gossip is no doubt nasty stuff, but it does energize the human spirit.
Now, from the west comes the cruiser with Tom Lund at the wheel and Dale Gilbertson in the shotgun seat. And from the east comes Jack's burgundy-colored Ram pickup. They reach the turnoff to Ed's at the same time. Jack motions for Dale to go first, then follows him. We take wing, fly above and then ahead of them. We roost on the rusty Esso gas pump to watch developments.
Jack drives slowly down the lane to the half-collapsed building that stands in a scruff of high weeds and goldenrod. He's looking for any sign of passage, and sees only the fresh tracks made by Dale and Tom's police car.
"We've got the place to ourselves," he informs Henry.
"Yes, but for how long?"
Not very would have been Jack's answer, had he bothered to give one. Instead, he pulls up next to Dale's car and gets out. Henry rolls down his window but stays put, as ordered.
Ed's was once a simple wooden building about the length of a Burlington Northern boxcar and with a boxcar's flat roof. At the south end, you could buy sof'-serve ice cream from one of three windows. At the north end you could get your nasty hot dog or your even nastier order of fish and chips to go. In the middle was a small sit-down restaurant featuring a counter and red-top stools. Now the south end has entirely collapsed, probably from the weight of snow. All the windows have been broken in. There's some graffiti ¡ª So-and-so chugs cock, we fucked Patty Jarvis untill she howelled, TROY LUVS MARYANN ¡ª but not as much as Jack might have expected. All but one of the stools have been looted. Crickets are conversing in the grass. They're loud, but not as loud as the flies inside the ruined restaurant. There are lots of flies in there, a regular fly convention in progress. And ¡ª
"Do you smell it?" Dale asks him.
Jack nods. Of course he does. He's smelled it already today, but now it's worse. Because there's more of Irma out here to send up a stink. Much more than what would fit into a single shoe box.
Tom Lund has produced a handkerchief and is mopping his broad, distressed face. It's warm, but not warm enough to account for the sweat streaming off his face and brow. And his skin is pasty.
"Officer Lund," Jack says.
"Huh!" Tom jumps and looks rather wildly around at Jack.
"You may have to vomit. If you feel you must, do it over there." Jack points to an overgrown track, even more ancient and ill-defined than the one leading in from the main road. This one seems to meander in the direction of Goltz's.
"I'll be okay," Tom says.
"I know you will. But if you need to unload, don't do it on what may turn out to be evidence."
"I want you to start stringing yellow tape around the entire building," Dale tells his officer. "Jack? A word?"
Dale puts a hand on Jack's forearm and starts walking back toward the truck. Although he's got a good many things on his mind, Jack notices how strong that hand is. And no tremble in it. Not yet, anyway.
"What is it?" Jack asks impatiently when they're standing near the passenger window of the truck. "We want a look before the whole world gets here, don't we? Wasn't that the idea, or am I ¡ª "
"You need to get the foot, Jack," Dale says. And then: "Hello, Uncle Henry, you look spiff."
"Thanks," Henry says.
"What are you talking about?" Jack asks. "That foot is evidence."
Dale nods. "I think it ought to be evidence found here, though. Unless, of course, you relish the idea of spending twenty-four hours or so answering questions in Madison."
Jack opens his mouth to tell Dale not to waste what little time they have with arrant idiocies, then closes it again. It suddenly occurs to him how his possession of that foot might look to minor-league smarties like Detectives Brown and Black. Maybe even to a major-league smarty like John Redding of the FBI. Brilliant cop retires at an impossibly young age, and to the impossibly bucolic town of French Landing, Wisconsin. He has plenty of scratch, but the source of income is blurry, to say the least. And oh, look at this, all at once there's a serial killer operating in the neighborhood.
Maybe the brilliant cop has got a loose screw. Maybe he's like those firemen who enjoy the pretty flames so much they get into the arson game themselves. Certainly Dale's Color Posse would have to wonder why the Fisherman would send an early retiree like Jack a victim's body part. And the hat, Jack thinks. Don't forget Ty's baseball cap.
All at once he knows how Dale felt when Jack told him that the phone at the 7-Eleven had to be cordoned off. Exactly.
"Oh man," he says. "You're right." He looks at Tom Lund, industriously running yellow POLICE LINE tape while butterflies dance around his shoulders and the flies continue their drunken buzzing from the shadows of Ed's Eats. "What about him?"
"Tom will keep his mouth shut," Dale says, and on that Jack decides to trust him. He wouldn't, had it been the Hungarian.
"I owe you one," Jack says.
"Yep," Henry agrees from his place in the passenger seat. "Even a blind man could see he owes you one."
"Shut up, Uncle Henry," Dale says.
"Yes, mon capitaine."
"What about the cap?" Jack asks.
"If we find anything else of Ty Marshall's . . ." Dale pauses, then swallows. "Or Ty himself, we'll leave it. If not, you keep it for the time being."
"I think maybe you just saved me a lot of major irritation," Jack says, leading Dale to the back of the truck. He opens the stainless steel box behind the cab, which he hasn't bothered to lock for the run out here, and takes out one of the trash-can liners. From inside it comes the slosh of water and the clink of a few remaining ice cubes. "The next time you get feeling dumb, you might remind yourself of that."
Dale ignores this completely. "Ohgod," he says, making it one word. He's looking at the Baggie that has just emerged from the trash-can liner. There are beads of water clinging to the transparent sides.
"The smell of it!" Henry says with undeniable distress. "Oh, the poor child!"
"You can smell it even through the plastic?" Jack asks.
"Yes indeed. And coming from there." Henry points at the ruined restaurant and then produces his cigarettes. "If I'd known, I would have brought a jar of Vicks and an El Producto."
In any case, there's no need to walk the Baggie with the gruesome artifact inside it past Tom Lund, who has now disappeared behind the ruins with his reel of yellow tape.
"Go on in," Dale instructs Jack quietly. "Get a look and take care of the thing in that Baggie if you find . . . you know . . . her. I want to speak to Tom."
Jack steps through the warped, doorless doorway into the thickening stench. Outside, he can hear Dale instructing Tom to send Pam Stevens and Danny Tcheda back down to the end of the access road as soon as they arrive, where they will serve as passport control.
The interior of Ed's Eats will probably be bright by afternoon, but now it is shadowy, lit mostly by crazed, crisscrossing rays of sun. Galaxies of dust spin lazily through them. Jack steps carefully, wishing he had a flashlight, not wanting to go back and get one from the cruiser until he's taken care of the foot. (He thinks of this as "redeployment.") There are human tracks through the dust, trash, and drifts of old gray feathers. The tracks are man-sized. Weaving in and out of them are a dog's paw-prints. Off to his left, Jack spies a neat little pile of droppings. He steps around the rusty remains of an overturned gas grill and follows both sets of tracks around the filthy counter. Outside, the second French Landing cruiser is rolling up. In here, in this darker world, the sound of the flies has become a soft roar and the stench . . . the stench . . .
Jack fishes a handkerchief from his pocket and places it over his nose as he follows the tracks into the kitchen. Here the pawprints multiply and the human footprints disappear completely. Jack thinks grimly of the circle of beaten-down grass he made in the field of that other world, a circle with no path of beaten-down grass leading to it.
Lying against the far wall near a pool of dried blood is what remains of Irma Freneau. The mop of her filthy strawberry-blond hair mercifully obscures her face. Above her on a rusty piece of tin that probably once served as a heat shield for the deep-fat fryers, two words have been written with what Jack feels sure was a black Sharpie marker:
Hello boys
"Ah, fuck," Dale Gilbertson says from almost directly behind him, and Jack nearly screams.
Outside, the snafu starts almost immediately.
Halfway back down the access road, Danny and Pam (not in the least disappointed to have been assigned guard duty once they have actually seen the slumped ruin of Ed's and smelled the aroma drifting from it) nearly have a head-on with an old International Harvester pickup that is bucketing toward Ed's at a good forty miles an hour. Luckily, Pam swings the cruiser to the right and the driver of the pickup ¡ª Teddy Runkleman ¡ª swings left. The vehicles miss each other by inches and swerve into the grass on either side of this poor excuse for a road. The pickup's rusty bumper thumps against a small birch.
Pam and Danny get out of their unit, hearts pumping, adrenaline spurting. Four men come spilling out of the pickup's cab like clowns out of the little car in the circus. Mrs. Morton would recognize them all as regulars at Roy's Store. Layabouts, she would call them.
"What in the name of God are you doing?" Danny Tcheda roars. His hand drops to the butt of his gun and then falls away a bit reluctantly. He's getting a headache.
The men (Runkleman is the only one the officers know by name, although between them they recognize the faces of the other three) are goggle-eyed with excitement.
"How many ja find?" one of them spits. Pam can actually see the spittle spraying out in the morning air, a sight she could have done without. "How many'd the bastid kill?"
Pam and Danny exchange a single dismayed look. And before they can reply, holy God, here comes an old Chevrolet Bel Air with another four or five men inside it. No, one of them is a woman. They pull up and spill out, also like clowns from the little car.
But we're the real clowns, Pam thinks. Us.
Pam and Danny are surrounded by eight semihysterical men and one semihysterical woman, all of them throwing questions.
"Hell, I'm going up there and see for myself!" Teddy Runkleman shouts, almost jubilantly, and Danny realizes the situation is on the verge of spinning out of control. If these fools get the rest of the way up the access road, Dale will first tear him a new asshole and then salt it down.
"HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, ALL OF YOU!" he bawls, and actually draws his gun. It's a first for him, and he hates the weight of it in his hand ¡ª these are ordinary people, after all, not bad guys ¡ª but it gets their attention.
"This is a crime scene," Pam says, finally able to speak in a normal tone of voice. They mutter and look at one another; worst fears confirmed. She steps to the driver of the Chevrolet. "Who are you, sir? A Saknessum? You look like a Saknessum."
"Freddy," he admits.
"Well, you get back in your vehicle, Freddy Saknessum, and the rest of you who came with him also get in, and you back the hell right out of here. Don't bother trying to turn around, you'll just get stuck."
"But ¡ª " the woman begins. Pam thinks she's a Sanger, a clan of fools if ever there was one.
"Stow it and go," Pam tells her.
"And you right behind him," Danny tells Teddy Runkleman. He just hopes to Christ no more will come along, or they'll end up trying to manage a parade in reverse. He doesn't know how the news got out, and at this moment can't afford to care. "Unless you want a summons for interfering with a police investigation. That can get you five years." He has no idea if there is such a charge, but it gets them moving even better than the sight of his pistol.
The Chevrolet backs out, rear end wagging from side to side like a dog's tail. Runkleman's pickup goes next, with two of the men standing up in back and peering over the cab, trying to catch sight of the old restaurant's roof, at least. Their curiosity lends them a look of unpleasant vacuity. The P.D. unit comes last, herding the old car and older truck like a corgi herding sheep, roof-rack lights now pulsing. Pam is forced to ride mostly on the brake, and as she drives she lets loose a low-pitched stream of words her mother never taught her.
"Do you kiss your kids good-night with that mouth?" Danny asks, not without admiration.
"Shut up," she says. Then: "You got any aspirin?"
"I was going to ask you the same thing," Danny says.
They get back out to the main road just in time. Three more vehicles are coming from the direction of French Landing, two from the direction of Centralia and Arden. A siren rises in the warming air. Another cruiser, the third in what was supposed to be an unobtrusive line, is coming along, passing the lookie-loos from town.
"Oh man." Danny sounds close to tears. "Oh man, oh man, oh man. It's gonna be a carnival, and I bet the staties still don't know. They'll have kittens. Dale is gonna have kittens."
"It'll be all right," Pam says. "Calm down. We'll just pull across the road and park. Also stick your gun back in the fucking holster."
"Yes, Mother." He stows his piece as Pam swings across the access road, pulling back to let the third cruiser through, then pulling forward again to block the way. "Yeah, maybe we caught it in time to put a lid on it."
"Course we did."
They relax a little. Both of them have forgotten the old stretch of road that runs between Ed's and Goltz's, but there are plenty of folks in town who know about it. Beezer St. Pierre and his boys, for instance. And while Wendell Green does not, guys like him always seem able to find the back way. They've got an instinct for it.