"On Faith" - by Sarah MonetteAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Nortonville, TX, August 22, 1964
Marmaduke Stone was waiting, not patiently, for the phone to ring, and trying to remember where the hell in east Texas they were.
The motel was called the Sundown Inn, which he'd remember even if he couldn't see the sign from where he sat, and the man whose phone call he was waiting on was Police Chief Harrison P. O'Brian. But he couldn't remember the name of the goddamn town.
He could ask Demmer, if he could get his attention. Demmer was stretched out on the bed farther from the door, shoes and jacket and holster off, reading a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem. It was by a woman named Hannah Arendt; Stone was pretty sure she was what he was raised to call a New York Jew, but you didn't make that kind of comment to Demmer unless you were looking for a black eye. Plus, although he couldn't imagine why anyone would want to write--or read--a book about the Eichmann trial, he did feel a weird kind of respect for the woman for having the balls to do it.
When the phone did ring, Stone didn't let himself snatch it. People got unnerved if you didn't give them that little ritual pause to compose their thoughts, and Police Chief Harrison P. O'Brian was already slow enough on the uptake without being thrown off his game. As he picked up the receiver, Stone finally remembered the name of the town. "Stone," he said.
"Agent Stone, this is Chief O'Brian. It looks like we got something for you boys after all."
"Oh?" He felt himself sit up a little straighter, like one of his Buford uncles' pointers. He reached for his pen and notebook as Demmer, catching the movement out of the corner of his eye, rolled over and went for his abandoned shoes. Stone knew he should stop him--this wasn't anything yet and realistically it was unlikely to be anything, but they were both so tired of these ugly motel rooms and this pointless case, he didn't have the heart. Maybe, when this turned out to be nothing, he'd take Demmer to Dairy Queen and buy him a sundae.
And anyway, O'Brian was talking. "Yeah. Now, it ain't the sort of thing you said you were looking for, but you also said, 'anything strange,' and this sure qualifies in that department."
Stone knew better than to rush O'Brian right now. He just said, "Yes, sir?" encouragingly and bided his time.
"We don't get many murders," O'Brian said, "and mostly they're the kind with no investigation needed, if you know what I mean. But this..."
Stone waited. That was genuine unease in O'Brian's voice. This might be something after all, even if it wasn't the thing he and Demmer were supposed to be after. Murder?
He heard O'Brian take a breath, and the police chief abruptly sounded like one when he started talking again: "The day the revivalist left town--and they were cleared out of here by ten A.M.--Arlene Summers dragged herself into Doc Beeler's office. Beeler says she was already dead then, and just didn't know it. He did everything he could, but she died that afternoon. He says it was arsenic, and he would know."
"You've had arsenic poisonings in Nortonville before?" Stone said. Demmer, shrugging into his holster, looked up and pantomimed, What the hell? Stone shrugged back, but this was definitely looking like something. Something strange, something wrong. Demmer might have to wait for that sundae.
"Stupid teenage suicide pact," O'Brian said, vicious with frustration and old grief. "'Bout five years ago. They ate rat poison together. Beeler did everything he could, but he couldn't save them, either. But, my point is, if he says it was arsenic, it was."
"But not suicide."
"No. She was begging Beeler to save her right up to the end. But she couldn't tell Beeler who poisoned her. All she could tell him was she'd been to the tent-meeting."
"It's much more likely to be a jealous boyfriend," Stone began, but O'Brian cut him off with an exhalation that was almost a laugh.
"Not Arlene. I don't think Arlene had anybody who would have cared enough to poison her, poor thing. But anyway, I've got the file, and I called Doc Beeler. He says he'll be glad to tell you anything he can."
"I think," Stone said, looking at Demmer, who was all but quivering with impatience by the door, a hunting dog for sure. "I think maybe we'll take him up on that."
J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building, Washington DC, August 22, 1995
Karl Demmer and Marmaduke Stone weren't after Clemson McCain in the first place. At a distance of thirty years and the other side of a mountain of paperwork, it was hard to tell what they were after, or if they had any clear idea themselves.
Stephen Reyes sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose against a steadily throbbing headache. The trouble with trawling the archives for weird shit, as Solomon Todd had said the other day, was that you found it. (Reyes had given him a disapproving look, but Todd just said, "What? It's the technical term.") And it was hard to separate out the weird shit they wanted from the endless vistas of weird shit they didn't.
Reyes had first heard about Clemson McCain from Todd, who'd heard about him from one of the many old guard FBI agents he was on friendly terms with: an access point into the old boys' network that Stephen Reyes--too black, too educated, too serious--would never be able to tap himself. But they all talked to Todd, even when they didn't quite trust him. They might think he was a hippie and a liberal and maybe a commie, but they weren't proof against his easy charm, against the way he listened, the way he understood when you were trying to say something serious. Reyes wasn't entirely proof against that either, and it made him uncomfortable. But he was also, uncomfortably, grateful, even more uncomfortably aware that a one-man crusade would be doomed to death beneath the weight of all these filing cabinets, all this paper.
There might or might not be anything in the Clemson McCain file to reward the search. But if you're fool enough to go looking for a needle in a field of haystacks, it's better to start with the haystack where someone reported getting pricked by a needle.
Stephen Reyes sighed again, rolled his neck, and dove back in.
Nortonville, TX, August 22, 1964
The field office in Houston had given them a 1962 Chevrolet Impala. With air conditioning. Stone and Demmer were both madly in love with it. There wasn't much else to be in love with at the tail end of a sweltering August afternoon in Nortonville, Texas. Certainly not the file on Arlene Summers, which Demmer was flipping through while Stone followed O'Brian's sweat-smudged map out to Doctor Aloysius Beeler's home-cum-office.
"She was nineteen," Demmer said. "Unmarried. No boyfriend. No friends. Father died in a car crash back in '52. Drunken mother barely remembered she had a daughter at all. The girl didn't finish high school. Stupid and wall-eyed, is all her teachers had to say about her. No, wait, one of them said he thought she was retarded, but the drunken mother never got her tested. She did housekeeping at the Sundown Inn."
"Wonderful," Stone said.
"I'd love to ask what they were paying her," Demmer muttered. "She had a withered arm."
"Christ. No wonder O'Brian thinks it has to be something to do with our faith-healing friend."
"Yeah," Demmer said, the way he did where it sounded almost like Ja. "Poor Arlene."
"Demmer. Don't start."
"I'm not starting," Demmer said irritably.
Stone pulled up at the four-way stop and eyed him suspiciously, being all too damn familiar with Demmer's knee-jerk crusading reflex when confronted with a sob story or an underdog. But Demmer had already flipped the page. Stone signaled, turned left, drove two blocks on the grossly misnamed Ponce de Leon Boulevard, and parked in front of a two-story house that had probably been a farmhouse once upon a time. Now, O'Brian said, the ground floor was Beeler's office, the upstairs his home. "Makes up for the fact we're too small for a hospital. God knows what we do when the old man dies."
Beeler was waiting for them on the porch, and Stone saw why O'Brian was worried. Aloysius Beeler was seventy if he was a day, with the forward-thrust, bald head of a turtle. Eyes were sharp, though, behind the half-moon glasses, and his grip was stronger than Stone would have expected.
"You're here about Arlene," he said. "Let's sit out here. Cooler."
He sat on the porch swing; Demmer and Stone each took a white wicker chair, Demmer hunching into his the way he did to try to make himself look smaller.
"I delivered Arlene," Beeler said. "She was a breech birth, and everything that could go wrong, did. And, of course, Maddy Summers was nobody's idea of a good prospect as a mother. Never expected to get pregnant. I was surprised she and Frank were still seeing enough of each other for that, to tell you the truth."
Demmer coughed, embarrassed. Stone said, "Chief O'Brian said it wasn't suicide."
Beeler pursed his lips, looking even more like a turtle. "No, it wasn't suicide."
Oh good going, Stone said to himself. He'd interviewed men like Beeler before. Give them their head, and they'd tell you everything they knew, including the 95% you didn't want. Try and narrow things down, and they'd clam up. But the only thing to do was go on and hope to coax him back into garrulity. "Could it have been an accident?" he asked. "We gathered from the file that she wasn't too bright."
"She was smart enough to know what was poison and what wasn't," Beeler snapped.
"Then who would want to kill her?" He took a calculated risk. "O'Brian seemed to think nobody cared enough to want her dead."
"Harry O'Brian wouldn't know his own dog if it bit him," Beeler said. But it worked: he went on. "For all that, he's right about Arlene. She didn't have anything anyone else would want, and she didn't have enough of a hold on anybody to need getting out of the way. For that matter, she was supporting her mother, so while I don't say Maddy wouldn't poison her own flesh and blood, she wouldn't have picked Arlene."
Stone wondered if there was any way to avoid interviewing Maddy Summers.
Demmer cleared his throat and said, "Doctor Beeler, were you surprised that Arlene had been at the tent-meeting?"
"No," Beeler said sadly. "Arlene believed in everything. And she thought if she could get her arm fixed, the boys might pay more attention to her. Every conman in east Texas knew to try his snake-oil on Arlene."
"Could that have been what killed her?" Stone said. "I know they put all kinds of crazy stuff in those patent medicines."
"It's a nice thought," Beeler said patronizingly, and Stone thought, Dipshit, without letting it show. "I thought of it, too. But Maddy says Arlene had been 'purifying' herself, looking forward to this McCain fella. She threw out all her patent medicines the week before the tent-meeting."
"I'm not a doctor," Demmer said, "so I apologize if this is a stupid question, sir, but are you sure it was arsenic?"
"Perfectly sure," Beeler said, but miraculously he wasn't offended. It was probably the sir. "I know the symptoms. Stomach cramps, drooling and vomiting, rice-water stools, loss of sensation in her hands and feet. She went into convulsions at the end. It was either arsenic or cholera, and we haven't had a case of cholera in Nortonville since 1888."
Demmer continued, "And you think it must have been someone at the tent-meeting?"
Beeler was silent for a moment before he said, "It doesn't make any sense, does it? Arlene never hurt a fly in her life, and she can't even have been worth the notice, from what I've heard about the show McCain puts on. But, yes, that's what I think. Someone at the tent-meeting poisoned her. But be damned if I can think why."
"That," said Stone, with a sidelong flicker of a grimace at Demmer, "is what the FBI is for."
J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building, Washington DC, September 19, 1995
As it is a truth universally acknowledged that you can trust a man as far as you can throw him, Solomon Todd was trying to figure out just how far he could throw Stephen Reyes if he had to. They were about the same size. Ten feet? Fifteen, maybe, with the right set-up. How good was ol' Steve at the hand-to-hand anyway?
Sometimes there was something very satisfying about imagining Stephen Reyes flying upside down through the air.
On the other hand, every Don Quixote needed a Sancho Panza. Todd grinned to himself; of the two of them, he knew who would be cast as Don Quixote every single time, and it didn't bother him. Everyone could watch Stephen Reyes tilting at windmills; Todd would sell tickets. And in the meantime, he could get some work done.
The quickness of the hand deceives the eye.
It was also a great boon to have a scientist around, Todd was discovering. He chased stories through the files; Reyes came along behind, gathering up the unconsidered trifles, sorting them into footnotes and appendices and structures of proof to support Todd's wild hunches. And while Todd was the one who had asked, What do you suppose they did with Clemson McCain? it was Reyes who had figured out the search parameters. Not that Todd couldn't have done it, but it would have taken him a week or so. It took Reyes five minutes. And it was deeply satisfying, in a completely unworthy way, to be able to say with perfect truth, "I'm calling on behalf of Dr. Stephen Reyes," and watch the gatekeepers of institutionalized medicine crumple into dust beneath your chariot wheels.
Well, not really. But it was a far cry from the response accorded to an investigative journalist, that was for sure.
So Reyes fought the higher-ups for time and space to pursue their dark grail, and Todd made phone calls, chasing the paper trail of Clemson McCain. Here, there, and everywhere, as the Beatles said. And finally, seven institutions removed from the FBI, he found Idlewood Psychiatric Institute. His third call to a Dr. Marcus Browne was returned by a very cautious, very surprised voice saying, "Yes, Clemson McCain is a patient here. But this is the first call we've had about him since, ah, 1966. Can I ask about the nature of Dr. Reyes' interest?"
"It's come to our attention," Todd said, using the institutional first-person plural with gusto, "that a profile was never completed on Mr. McCain." This, as it happened, was perfectly true. Clemson McCain had fallen right through the cracks.
"Dr. Reyes is a behavioral analyst, then?" Dr. Browne asked. He sounded relieved.
"Yes," Todd said, still truthful, and smirked across the room at the back of Reyes' head. "Yes, he is."
J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building, Washington DC, September 20, 1995
"Council of war," Todd said, dropping a stack of folders on the table with a dramatic thump.
Reyes lifted an eyebrow. It was a look that worked well on undergraduates, but had yet to register on Todd. "Are we at war?"
Todd mimed astonishment. "You mean the War on Drugs is over and nobody told me?"
"Sol." Reyes could swear to himself fifty times a day that he wasn't going to give Todd the satisfaction of showing impatience, but he couldn't make it stick. Todd grinned at him and sat down. He divided the stack of folders and pushed half of them across the table to Reyes: McCAIN, CLEMSON NMI, he read on the tab of the top one. DOB 4/13/44.
Todd produced a notebook and pen from his jacket and said, more seriously, "This is the paper trail on Clemson McCain. If we're going to interview him, I thought it would be better to be prepared. Make this look like a real profile and all."
"It is a real profile," Reyes said irritably.
"I know, I know," Todd said, with a wide-palmed gesture of appeasement that was as perfectly fake as a three-dollar bill. "Like I said, let's be prepared."
It was logical and necessary, and Reyes told himself not to get territorial. Those were old instincts for a dysfunctional system, and while he was suspicious about certain aspects of the institutional health of the FBI, none of that had any place between him and Todd. It was Todd who had found McCain in the first place. It was Todd who had invited Reyes in, and the least he could do was remember that.
If he's not worried about you scooping him, Stephen, then you can ante up and not suspect him of trying to steal your research.
They worked silently for a while--for all that he talked too much and to too little purpose, Todd knew how to concentrate--and then Todd said, "Have you thought about what you're going to say to Dr. Browne?"
"About what?" Reyes said from a midden of Sixties psychological jargon.
"About the anomalous elements of the case," Todd said, sounding suspiciously like he was quoting Reyes.
"We don't know that there are any anomalous elements," Reyes said. "We have hearsay evidence from agents who did not personally work on the case, and we have a very peculiar set of circumstances described in the file. And Agent Demmer and Agent Stone seem to have thought there was something quote-unquote paranormal going on. But none of that is proof, Sol. You know that."
Todd put his pen down and looked at Reyes with something Reyes was quite startled to identify as exasperation. "Have you ever once in your entire life taken anything on faith?"
"Lapsed Catholic," Reyes said.
"Point," said Todd and picked up his pen again.
Los Martires, TX, October 3, 1964
In Los Martires, Texas, population 988, Demmer saved Stone's life for the second time in their partnership. They were keeping a prudent distance from Edgar McCain and his Traveling Bullshit Show, but Stone's death would have been recorded as in the line of duty all the same. "This goddamn case is bringing all the weirdos out of the bushes," Stone grumbled while Demmer fussed over him with their first-aid kit in the bathroom of their sleazy room in the sleazy Starlite Motel, and Demmer didn't disagree. Since starting on the trail of Edgar McCain, they'd found smugglers and white supremacists, bootleggers and marijuana growers and people sitting on enough guns to start World War III. Just since Nortonville, they'd found a whorehouse specializing in wetback girls, a local sheriff making most of his money from bribes, and a bigamist who was trying to collect a wife in every state. In Los Martires, they'd found, utterly without meaning to, a man who claimed he was the last of the Barrow gang. And he'd been more than willing to blow Stone's head off to prove it. They were no closer than they ever had been to proving a connection between Edgar McCain and the murder of Medgar Evers, or between Edgar McCain and any damn thing else. It was positively a relief to find a message from the Houston office about Arlene Summers and Nortonville.
Except that the message didn't make any sense.
"What do you mean, no arsenic?" Stone demanded when he finally got his expensive long-distance telephone call to connect him with Dr. Samuel Patterson in Houston.
"Exactly what I said," Dr. Patterson said. He sounded tired. "The corpse had no more arsenic in it than any other corpse I encounter."
"Then it was cholera?" Stone said before he could stop himself.
"No, it was arsenic," Dr. Patterson said. "Textbook presentation."
"But you just said..."
"I can't explain it, Agent Stone. I can only tell you what I did--or in this case, did not--find."
"Christ in a mailbag," Stone muttered under his breath. Demmer, who was listening intently to Stone's side of the conversation, pretended not to hear. It was a compromise--Stone kept his voice down and Demmer practiced his selective deafness--and better than having another argument about the language befitting an FBI agent. "Do you have an explanation?"
"No, I told you--"
"A hypothesis, then," Stone said, a little desperately. "A wild-ass guess!"
Offended static-laced silence from Houston, and Stone pulled himself together. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that to come out like it did." Demmer was scribbling frantically on the back of a gas station receipt, and Stone craned to read. "I have a better question, Dr. Patterson. Have you ever seen anything like this before?"
"No," Patterson said promptly. "I'm sorry, Agent Stone, I'd help you if I could."
"Thank you for your time, doctor," Stone said and numbly hung up the phone.
Ashton, VA, October 10, 1995
Getting in to see Clemson McCain was like trying to get an audience with the Pope. Or worse, Todd thought, because at least with the Pope, you're not the first person to try in more than twenty years.
Although, come to think of it, Idlewood Psychiatric Institute wasn't all that far off the Vatican, either. It was a vast and sprawling red-brick building--heroic, even--with round towers flanking the main entrance and square towers at each zig-zag corner and round towers again like sentinels at the farthest corners. "Kirkbride," Todd said with both surprise and satisfaction when he saw it, and Reyes grunted in an interview with anomaloid now, lecture on American architectural and psychiatric history later kind of way. Inside Idlewood, everything was white marble and vaulted ceilings. The front staircase, with its carved banisters, seemed to be begging for a queen to walk down it in her ermine and velvet instead of threadbare doctors with their noses buried in patient records. But once your eye started following the doctors, Todd observed, you saw different things. The plaster of the elegant walls was cracked, and paint was peeling on the doors and windowsills. The windows themselves were clean enough on the human level, but those soaring upper reaches were filthy. This was a building from a more gracious era--and a much more gracious budget.
The security guards at the front doors were very polite and utterly uncompromising. Everyone's ID was checked; everyone went through the metal detector. Everyone was treated to the same flatly careful scrutiny, including doctors who'd worked there for twenty years and a visiting psychiatrist who was seventy if she was a day, and Todd wondered just what kind of security problems Idlewood had had in the past.
Something else to go digging for, in his copious spare time.
But he appreciated thoroughness in his security professionals. He'd seen what could happen when they got lazy. No, the serious hindrance was the doctor, Marcus Browne, who seemed to feel he had the moral right to conduct a full psychological profile on them before he let them talk to Clemson McCain. If he had been motivated by concern for his patient, Todd wouldn't have minded. He was the first to admit that he and Reyes and their quest looked more than a little peculiar. But Dr. Browne was merely exercising a little petty tyranny, showing them who had power here in Idlewood. As FBI agents, Todd and Reyes had both seen that before, and in far more virulent forms, but familiarity did not make it any less tedious.
Reyes was very good at this sort of thing, and Todd mentally sat back and let him at it, secure in the knowledge that Stephen Reyes could eat a dozen Marcus Brownes and still have room for dessert. Reyes, in fact, extracted more information than he yielded: Clemson McCain was one of the least difficult of Idlewood's patients. No escape attempts, no fights, no vandalism. They adhered to the no-touching rule which featured so prominently in McCain's intake forms--Dr. Browne called it a "policy of tactile non-interference"--but it was clear they didn't see the need, except that McCain himself seemed to prefer it. His case had been overseen by several different psychiatrists, none of whom (reading between the lines a little) had taken much interest in him. Reyes almost led Browne into admitting that arsenic wasn't trendy enough, but he showed unexpected mercy at the last moment and let Browne wiggle off the hook.
But it might have been that which finally released them from the sunny, sterile prison of Browne's office into the care of a pair of orderlies.
Velasquez and Lewis were polite, slovenly, and bored. They explained the routine--one orderly stayed in the interview room at all times, while the other watched through the observation window. No objects were to be given to or received from the patient. Either orderly could end the interview at any time. Reyes nodded and smiled the tight-lipped smile that meant he was racking up charges for a professional conduct hearing behind it. Todd concentrated on looking harmless, just in case Reyes' composure slipped and they had to do a round of Good Agent, Bad Agent to keep things on track.
The interview room in--of course--the basement, was as dismal as anything out of Orwell, all cinder block and fluorescents. They hadn't even bothered with the polite fiction of a mirror to conceal the observation window. McCain was waiting for them with his own pair of orderlies; he stood up politely as Reyes and Todd entered the room.
Clemson McCain, at fifty-one, was six feet tall, heavy boned. He wasn't carrying any extra flesh, although he had the grayish, pasty look of a man who got neither sun nor exercise. His hair, cropped short and receding, could have been any color; his eyes, deep-set in the broad pitted moon of his face, glinted like chips of mica. He looked like a serial killer, albeit one who would express himself with chainsaws rather than poison. Todd suffered the immediate and uneasy suspicion that he found this all very amusing.
The orderlies sorted themselves out, Velasquez and one of McCain's staying while Lewis and the other one left. Todd and Reyes exchanged a look, and Todd went with Lewis. That room was too small for the four people in it; there was no corner to disappear in. He sat in the observation room with a legal pad and pen and took notes on the stately, hostile negotiations between Reyes and McCain which were flying under the flag of an "interview." McCain never lost his air of faint amusement, nor one whit of his slow politeness. Every question Reyes asked was met with a considering pause and an uninformative answer. Reyes met him with equal gravitas and no effort to increase the pace; every noncommittal answer produced an even sharper question. Reyes wasn't yielding an inch. Todd knew how fiercely he'd wanted the chance to question a living monster--not "monster," Sol. Talk about prejudicial. But they didn't have any good terms for the thing they were chasing. Reyes used the term "anomaloid," but Todd hated it. Too much like David Bowie's "ten thousand peoploids." And the FBI's jargon wasn't any help, either. Clemson McCain wasn't an UNSUB, except on a deep epistemological level which was unsuited to daily conversation. He scribbled a query in the margin for later consideration and listened to Reyes taking McCain through the list of basic questions they'd drawn up together. The FBI's standard profile could wait for a later interview, once they had a better feel for the ways in which McCain wasn't going to fit it.
How many victims?
Pause. He wasn't sure. Thirty years was a long time, and the details faded.
When had he committed his first murder?
Pause. 1957. (Todd, who didn't have to censor his reactions, twitched a jagged arc of ink across the word "stone-walling." He and Reyes had been sure there were more victims than had been found, but neither of them had guessed Demmer and Stone had interrupted a seven year career.)
How old were you?
Pause. Thirteen or so.
Why did your victims show the symptoms of arsenic poisoning?
Pause. It was what I used.
(They had argued about whether to reveal McCain's "anomalous presentation" to the Idlewood staff and had finally, reluctantly, agreed not to. The repercussions of not being believed were too great; at a minimum they'd be denied access, and things could only get worse from there. And Reyes was paranoid--in, Todd sometimes thought, the clinical sense--about what would happen if news of the anomaly leaked to the press.)
Clemson McCain's eyebrows went up, the first overt reaction Reyes had gotten out of him. Didn't think we'd guessed your little secret, did you? But there was that same slow pause, and he said, "I was...familiar with its effects." Something that might have been a smile flickered at the corners of his mouth, but he said nothing more.
Reyes persisted down the list; McCain answered slowly and courteously, with no trace of either anger or guilt. The orderlies looked ready to die of boredom, but they didn't interfere. Todd took notes and tried to think of a better word than "monster" to describe Clemson McCain.
Arlan, TX, October 15, 1964
Periodically, to prove the FBI hadn't forgotten about them, Demmer and Stone's nominal superior, an up and coming young asshole named Ralph Halliday, would send a suggestion to Houston, which then--no matter how hare-brained--had to be followed up and reported on. The latest idea was smuggling, and it meant that today they were much closer to Edgar McCain's heels than they'd ever let themselves get: the tent-meeting had folded up only two days previously, and the Chigwell County Fairgrounds were still littered with bright, crude pamphlets and the crinkled cellophane used to wrap the cheap wooden crosses, "PERSONALLY TOUCHED BY REVEREND MCCAIN," that were sold by the hundreds--if not the thousands--every time McCain put on a show. Stone and Demmer were quartering this great tract of barrenness, looking for a smuggler's drop.
The local police thought they were crazy.
Stone was inclined to agree, but orders were orders, and the concept of token efforts was not in Demmer's cosmology. And Stone could admit that, in the abstract, McCain's circus looked like a great cover for smugglers. He could even admit, grudgingly and only to himself, that the fact he was 99 percent certain that wasn't the kind of illegality Edgar McCain would ever lend himself to wasn't sufficient reason not to check. Underlings had gotten bright ideas of their own before.
It was funny, though, how free McCain's operation seemed to be from that kind of private enterprise. Whatever you thought about his claims to have the power of God in his hands, there was no denying he had a gift for recruiting and keeping personnel. As a matter of course, they'd looked for ex-employees: men with a grudge were always a fertile, if dubiously accurate, source of information. But there weren't any. The only former employees of Edgar McCain they'd been able to find were two men in a Louisiana graveyard and one in an Arkansas hospital. The dead men had been killed in a car accident about which there was not the slightest shred of mystery ("With that much alcohol in his bloodstream," said the doctor who'd done the post mortem on the driver who'd rammed them, "I'm only surprised he made it into the car in the first place."), and the man in Arkansas had been injured fighting to protect McCain's physical plant from a couple of local opportunists. Demmer and Stone hadn't approached him.
Stone kicked his way through a drift of newspapers. Everything in Chigwell County was yellow, desiccated, and dying, from the grass to the sheriff--liver cancer, and wasn't that a bitch of a way to go? He was holding on as long as he could, trying to give the county time to find a replacement, but he'd made it clear he didn't have any energy to spare for the FBI and whatever damnfool notions they might have taken into their heads. On the plus side, he didn't have any energy to spare for Edgar McCain, either, his mouth drawn down in bitter lines at the mention. Stone wondered if the sheriff had gone to the tent-meeting, put his name in the box for the faith-healing raffle. If he had, he'd been passed over.
Like Arlene Summers, who'd died as crippled as she'd been born.
"Drop it, fuckwit," Stone snarled at himself. Arlene Summers had become his sore tooth about this case, the thing he couldn't stop poking. Died of arsenic poisoning without any arsenic in her. Went to the tent-meeting and never came home. The two things had to be related and couldn't be related, and he was driving himself crazy with it, the way Demmer was pulling his hair out over the maybe-yes, maybe-no, never-jam-today elusive nature of McCain's unproven connection with the KKK. Demmer wanted to nail McCain on that so badly Stone could taste it, and they certainly had evidence that KKK members in Louisiana and Arkansas and Texas were attending when the tent-meetings came through their pissant little towns. But so did Elks and Shriners and fucking Kiwanis. The fact that they came wasn't evidence that McCain knew they were there. Or that he wanted anything to do with them beyond parting them from their money in the time-honored American tradition. Demmer could, and did, build plausible chains of connection linking McCain to more than just the death of Medgar Evers, but it was nothing a semi-competent defense attorney couldn't shoot down without bothering to open his eyes. Stone, tired of saying so, had finally added, "And anyway, you'll do better to prove Communist connections if you want anybody to listen to you."
He grinned, remembering. Demmer had just about fed him his own balls for that, doubly furious because he knew it was true. There was a tendency in the halls of power to regard the Klan with a sort of "boys will be boys" indulgence, whereas Communism had them on their feet and frothing in a heartbeat. Before being teamed with Demmer, Stone hadn't thought twice about that, but Demmer's unrelenting anger had changed something in him; he was never going to be a crusader, but he was quite sure of where his loyalties lay, and it wasn't with the men who dressed up in sheets and bombed people's homes.
There was a poster on one of the light poles showing a man's outstretched hands, palms up. Stone stopped to study it. McCain's hands presumably, uncallused, clean, and well-kept. They didn't look like anything special, not artist's hands or surgeon's hands. Banker's hands, Stone thought. The artist had air-brushed in a faint white glow around them, but Stone knew from interviewing attendees that there was no such thing. Just an ordinary man in an ordinary suit, putting his ordinary hands on sick people and, apparently, curing them. The most baffling part of the whole thing was that McCain seemed to be able to do what he promised. They'd talked to people McCain had cured, people who swore they'd be dead if it hadn't been for Edgar McCain's hands, and while Demmer muttered about the power of suggestion, Stone was starting to wonder if that was really a sufficient explanation. The poster didn't tell him anything except that McCain had had the sense to hire someone to do the design work.
He was yanked back to himself abruptly by the sound of a shout. Demmer. Behind him, somewhere off to his left. It was a wordless yell, and Stone was reaching for his gun even as he started to turn, even as he broke into a run, part of his brain pointing out that if Demmer had encountered someone armed and hostile, it was already too late, another part pointing out that this was the Chigwell County Fairgrounds, for the love of Christ, and the most Demmer was likely to find was a stray dog.
But he ran anyway, and found Demmer emerging from a drainage ditch--bone dry in this weather--with a look on his face that said he was trying not to be sick. And when Stone heaved in a breath, he knew why. You learned the sweet-rotten smell of corruption real quick in this game.
He holstered his gun.
"Dead body," Demmer said. "Young male, I think, although it's a little hard to tell. No signs of violence, and ample evidence that he was sick before he died." He swallowed hard. "Repeatedly."
"Arsenic," Stone said.
"Or not," said Demmer, and they both shivered in the October heat.
Ashton, VA, October 17, 1995
"Hello, Mr. Todd," said Clemson McCain. "Where's your colored friend?"
The offense might have been unintentional; after all, in 1964, the last time McCain had been a free man, "colored" had not yet been wrong. But Todd looked at McCain's inexpressive face and thought otherwise.
"Agent Reyes," he said without emphasis, "has other obligations."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said McCain. "It's a pleasure to talk to an intelligent man."
Today the orderlies in the room were Lewis and a skinny man whose name Todd didn't know yet. Velasquez and Richter were visible behind the observation window. McCain didn't give the slightest sign of being aware of any of them. Todd didn't think Lewis was paying enough attention to realize he'd been insulted, and he couldn't see the other man without turning around, which (a.) was exactly the sort of awkward, attention-attracting move he wanted to avoid and (b.) would mean taking his eyes off Clemson McCain, and, really, let's not.
He and Reyes had tried to get Browne to tighten up the security procedures around McCain, even going so far as to hint at the paranormal nature of the threat, but Browne had dismissed their concerns as officiousness and had threatened to complain to their supervisor if they continued. Todd had had a private word with each of the orderlies, but he was fairly sure he'd wasted his breath. He just hoped the effort was as unnecessary as it was futile.
He had another laundry list of questions (What are we trying to do, exactly, he'd asked Reyes, bore him to death? Reyes just gave him a long-suffering look), which McCain answered with the same courteous uncooperativeness he'd shown all along. He agreed to the facts already in the files--date of birth, April 13, 1944; father's name, Howard McCain; mother's name, May Elizabeth McCain, maiden name Jeffries; brother's name, Edgar McCain. His father had died in 1957 (Todd noted the coincidence but decided not to ask that question just yet); he had been a faith healer, like Clemson McCain's brother Edgar. There was no doubt that Clemson McCain believed whole-heartedly in his father's power. "He was a man of God," McCain said, "and God worked miracles through him."
"And your brother?"
"Yes, and my brother as well."
The obvious question was, Well, what about you, then? and Todd elected not to ask it. Instead, he asked, "What about your mother?" and got the first honest, uncensored response he'd yet seen McCain give.
"You will leave my mother out of this," McCain said flatly, furiously, and Todd borrowed that considering pause, making a note, letting the echoes of McCain's voice die away.
"You didn't answer my question," he said, keeping his voice purposefully low, calm--nothing for McCain to react off of.
McCain paused, and Todd bit the inside of his cheek, thinking that they were turning into a Beckett play. Then McCain said, "I understand what you are after, Mr. Todd, and I assure you, it is nothing to do with my mother."
"How can you be sure?" Todd asked, making a note to return later to the question of what it was McCain thought he understood they were after.
"I have had a very long time to think," McCain said, and Todd couldn't quite identify his tone. Was that irony? Bitterness? Was it just the honesty of his answer that made it sound so odd? "I know what I am."
"What are you?"
"A child of Cain, as my name proclaims me."
Todd knew that, while McCain had access to Idlewood's library and read widely, the only book he kept in his room was the Bible. He read it from beginning to end, and then started at the beginning again. Todd had a note somewhere to ask him what iteration he was on. It was quite probable that the Biblical imagery was, for him, not imagery at all, but the literal truth.
"Even Cain's children had mothers, although the Bible doesn't tell us very much about them," Todd said.
"I haven't spoken to my mother since 1955," McCain said, goaded finally into an answer. "I really can't tell you anything about her. And I think we're done for the day."
It was not the interview subject's place to make that decision, but McCain had the orderlies on his side. Lewis was moving to unlock his cuffs even as Todd had his mouth open to say, That's very interesting, Mr. McCain, but what say you try a little harder? He debated for a split-second saying it anyway, but he was stopped by the realization that he would be presenting McCain with an exploitable weakness in the facade of authority. He had to keep the orderlies' good will. He pushed his chair back, gathering notepad and pen in preparation for standing up, and at that moment, several things happened at once:
First, Todd's conscious brain caught up to the really horrible breach of security procedures: McCain was never supposed to be unrestrained while a visitor was in the room with him.
Second, Lewis released the handcuffs.
Third, Clemson McCain lunged with the horrifying, unlikely speed of a bear, hands outstretched. He was aiming directly for Solomon Todd. It was chance that saved Todd's life, the pure chance that he'd already been pushing away from the table. He flung himself and the chair over and rolled to his feet. He was in time to witness, but far too late to stop, as McCain, thwarted of his first target, placed his left hand squarely on the face of the orderly whose name Todd did not know.
The convulsions were instantaneous. Death, horribly, was not.
Lewis was standing in the middle of the room wringing his hands, as useless as a screen door on a submarine. Alarms started howling, which was nice, but also not personally useful. Todd hoped Velasquez and Richter in the observation room were doing something constructive. He circled slowly back, never taking his eyes off McCain, gratified, if not exactly happy, to see McCain track his movements, turning away from the door.
You could say something here, Sol. Something like, "You don't want to kill me." But that was a lie; he could see how much Clemson McCain wanted to kill him in the flush on his face, the brightness of his eyes, the way his hands were opening and closing. The way he stepped over his thrashing victim without even looking down.
Todd circled a little further, turning McCain until he had his back squarely to the door, praying that somebody somewhere in this pile of stone had a brain and the gumption to use it. He couldn't look away from McCain to find out. Not now that he'd seen how fast the bastard could move.
"I regret this," McCain said conversationally.
"No, you don't," Todd said.
"Oh, not the killing," McCain said. He sounded faintly surprised. "I regret the ugliness."
"Arsenic is an ugly way to die."
"Yes, exactly," said McCain. Then he grunted, and again. He turned back toward the door; around him, Todd could see Velasquez standing in the doorway with a tranq gun, in the process of firing a third dose into McCain. At least they paid attention to that part of his records, Todd thought, somewhere between relief and resentment.
"Oh, God damn it," Clemson McCain said. He started for the door, but Velasquez put a fourth round into his shoulder, backed up, and added a fifth. Clemson McCain's knees unhinged and he went down with the ponderous grace of a dynamited opera hall.
Todd and Velasquez looked at each other. Velasquez was starting to shake. "Thanks," Todd said.
"Sure," said Velasquez and staggered back to lean against the wall. He almost made it look intentional.
Todd skirted as wide around McCain as he could, cursing every horror movie he'd ever watched for the ineradicable mental image of McCain's hand shooting out to grab his ankle. All he needs is skin, said a nervous little voice. Not as catchy as "All you need is love," is it?
He knelt down by the victim, although he knew it was too late. The man had stopped moving sometime before McCain had gone down. Apparently, imaginary arsenic worked a lot quicker than the real thing. No pulse, and Todd was just wondering if CPR would do anything when a hullabaloo of crashing and shouting announced the arrival of a medical team, and he was gratefully shunted off to one side.
It didn't look like CPR was going to help, and he doubted the paddles would do much, either.
He had to clear his throat before he could ask Velasquez, "What was his name?"
"Tony," Velasquez said. He glanced at the clamor surrounding stillness and crossed himself. "Tony Clifford." He flicked a glance up at Todd. "Could that man have done that any time? Any time these past ten years I been working here?"
"Yeah," Todd said.
"Mother of God. Why didn't he?"
"I don't know." It was a fucking useless answer, but it was the only one he had right now. "I just don't know." Behind him, the clamor surrounding Tony Clifford's stillness ceased.
Portugal, TX, October 18, 1964
It took three days to get an identity for the body, primarily because no one in his hometown of Portugal, Texas, had noticed he was missing. Randall Joseph Washburn, age twenty-two, high school dropout and small-time hood. He was known as Patchy on account of a skin condition, and that was no doubt why he'd been drawn to McCain--and why he'd chosen a venue a good four hours from Portugal.
They sent the body to Dr. Patterson in Houston for the autopsy and spent the time waiting in nosing around Portugal, finding out everything they could about Patchy Washburn. It was ironically easier than getting information about Arlene Summers: Patchy had been well-known to local law, and every deputy had a story about a run-in with him. The picture they built up was not an attractive one--no one was going to mourn Patchy Washburn, and quite a few lives were improved by his passing, including that of his skinny, tired common-law wife, who answered the door with bruises yellow on her face and arms from the last time Patchy had been home.
Her name was Grace Leroy; she was part Spanish and part Indian and she and the little boy on her hip had the same sea-blue eyes. She was twenty. She wouldn't talk to Stone at all, her face hard and closed, but Demmer's shy awkwardness frequently worked miracles with female witnesses, and Grace Leroy was no exception. Even so, there wasn't much she could tell them. She hadn't known about the tent meeting, and Patchy hadn't said anything about going out of town. She wasn't surprised though. "He thought doctors were quacks, that they got their fancy degrees just so they could get more money out of people. He'd try anything if it wasn't a doctor's idea."
Like Arlene Summers and her patent medicines, Stone thought, and listened as Demmer asked her about Patchy's enemies, if she knew of anyone else in Portugal who'd gone to the tent meeting, all the necessary useless questions that had to be asked. It didn't even matter if Grace Leroy's answers were truth or lies; neither Stone nor Demmer thought for a moment that anyone in Portugal had killed Patchy Washburn.
The last question Demmer asked was a joker in the pack: "Did Mr. Washburn ever mention knowing anyone in Nortonville?"
"Nortonville?" She looked at him blankly.
"I guess he didn't, then," Demmer said with one of his crooked smiles.
"No," she said finally, still looking puzzled. "No, he never mentioned Nortonville."
And that was the end of the interview. They went back to the ramshackle motel, and Stone had another expensive and unsatisfactory conversation with Dr. Patterson, which he could summarize for Demmer in three words: "Same as Summers."
"Well we thought it would be," Demmer fidgeted with his pen--nervousness always looked so odd on a man with Demmer's college football physique--then said, "I've had a thought."
"And what is your thought?" Stone said, dropping down on the bed nearer the door.
"Well, Washburn's body."
"Yes?" Stone said encouragingly. Demmer was odd this way. Get him worked up about something and it took four strong men and a court order to shut him up, but he was a bitch to start cold.
"It was wedged back in that culvert. I don't think he could have gotten there by himself."
"And?" said Stone, because there was clearly an and coming.
"And if we hadn't been looking right then--if the fairgrounds had stayed deserted until November the way they were supposed to--I don't think anyone would have found him."
It was an uneasy thought, and probably true. "Okay," Stone said. "So?"
"Well, I was thinking." He paused a moment, nerving himself up, then spat it out: "What if Miss Summers hadn't known where Dr. Beeler lived? What if she hadn't made it there?"
Stone's mind ticked obediently through the possibilities. "You think the murderer hid the body."
"Yes," Demmer said, looking relieved.
"And he screwed up with Arlene Summers."
"And?" There was another and here; Stone could feel it, even if he couldn't see it for himself yet.
"And I'm wondering if there were other times when he didn't screw up," said Demmer.
"You think there might be more bodies," Stone said, staring at him in almost awe-struck horror.
"Strewn all over Texas and the Deep South."
"Fuck me blind," said Stone, and for once Demmer didn't complain.
J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building, Washington DC, November 22, 1995
What astonished Stephen Reyes, rereading the Clemson McCain file, was the gigantic leap of faith Stone and Demmer had taken after they'd found the second body, and the back-breaking investigation they'd begun on the strength of it. Today, faced with the same situation, Reyes and Todd would have had computers to do the hard work; a long-distance telephone system they didn't need to think twice about; and law enforcement personnel trained to cooperate with the FBI, by TV if nothing else. Stone and Demmer had a map.
The map was in the file, creased and torn and stained with coffee and mustard and chocolate, annotated in a very neat hand with black ink and scrawled on in a very untidy hand with blue. From other documents, Reyes knew that the neat black writing was Stone and the blue scrawl was Demmer. He and Todd cleared off Todd's desk and spread the map out. Stone had marked every town they knew Edgar McCain's show had visited and noted the dates. In those neat black letters, he had printed ARLENE SUMMERS beside Nortonville and RANDALL WASHBURN beside Arlan, the county seat of Chigwell County, Texas, each of them with the date they died.
Then Demmer's scrawl took over, recording their progress from town to town as they searched for unsolved murders and missing persons around their given dates. Each town McCain had visited had two numbers beside it (even when one of those numbers was 0). Several of them also had names.
Doris Perkins, Mabel Sweeney, Harold Lewinsky, Joanne Betts, Isabel Purdy, Mary Susannah Johnson, Arthur King. Each of them had their own dossier page, clipped together with the pages on Summers and Washburn. Three of them, Perkins, Betts, and Purdy, had been autopsied, with familiar results. Four were missing persons, last known location--or, at least, destination--Edgar McCain's tent revival. One, Isabel Purdy, Stone and Demmer had found as they had found Randall Washburn, dead and hidden a stone's throw from the fairgrounds where McCain had set up shop.
"But absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence," Todd muttered, rumpling his hair distractedly. "How do you arrest someone for not poisoning people?"
"You were the one complaining about my lack of faith," Reyes said and repressed a smile when Todd glared at him. "Well, they did have a chain of evidence which, while circumstantial, was also as close as they ever got to having anything solid on Edgar McCain. It was certainly enough to warrant asking some questions, and I suspect that was all they intended to do. But--" He paused, enjoying, just this once, making Todd play the straight man. "--there's no reason we can't ask them." And to Todd's double-take, he added, "They share a small house just outside of Manassas. When I spoke to Mr. Demmer on the phone, he said they'd be home all day tomorrow and very pleased to have visitors."
A beat, and Todd recovered. "You're a foxy son of a bitch," he said admiringly and burst out laughing.
Somewhere in East Texas, November 22, 1964
Out of a long, highway monotonous silence, Demmer said, "Why do they all call you Tommy?"
Stone felt his hands tighten on the steering wheel and forced them to relax. Given the ghost sitting with them in the car, a blood- and brain-spattered presidential ghost whom Stone had respected and Demmer, he knew, still deeply mourned, he was willing to make a sacrifice of his pride to keep the conversation in east Texas and away from fucking Dallas and the one-year-dead body of President Kennedy.
"My given name's Marmaduke."
"Yes," Demmer said encouragingly.
"Well, they started calling me Marmalade at prep school, and then Marmalade Tom. These days it's mostly just Tommy, and nobody remembers why."
"And you hate it," Demmer said. He sounded satisfied, like he'd finally found the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle where it got kicked under the radiator.
Stone's hands went tight again. He knew how observant Demmer was when he wanted to be, but he still didn't like having it turned on him. "No," he agreed. "I've never liked it much."
"I won't call you Tommy, then. What about Duke?"
"Duke?" This time, when he looked sideways, Demmer was grinning at him. Stone found himself oddly touched, although he was careful not to let it show. Demmer's sense of humor, what little there was of it, was beyond weird, and he almost never let it out to play. "Okay, fine, smartass. You can call me Duke."
And the ghost of John F. Kennedy got a little fainter between them.
Manassas, VA, November 23, 1995
Todd had speculated outrageously all the way to Manassas about why Stone and Demmer lived together. Reyes, driving, had tried to keep a poker face, so as not to encourage him, but he was fairly sure he failed about the time Todd posited a secret underground laboratory with J. Edgar Hoover's brain in a jar.
The truth, though, was sad and ordinary. Marmaduke Stone had suffered a stroke five years ago, and Karl Demmer had cared enough to keep him out of a nursing home. Demmer, big and silvering blond and slow-moving, explained the situation with a calm, unresentful lucidity that Reyes could only admire. Demmer had been retired on disability after a car accident when he was forty-five--he made a gesture that encompassed his slow, careful movements and the cane he leaned on--and had been living quietly in this little house ever since. When Stone had his stroke and it became obvious what sort of care he'd need, Demmer had been glad of a chance to be useful again.
"He must have been quite young," Reyes said cautiously.
"Fifty-seven," said Demmer. "But his blood pressure had been a matter of concern for years--apparently there are drawbacks to the blue blood of Virginia after all--and he had suffered a number of what his doctor persists in referring to as 'cranial accidents': high school football has a lot to answer for, and something happened when he was serving in Korea that he would never talk about. Ironically, Clemson McCain was responsible for the last of them."
Reyes and Todd both nodded; they'd read about it in the file.
"Physically, he's in better shape than I am," Demmer said, anticipating a question Reyes hadn't been going to ask. "And he's still there. But his aphasia never improved the way the therapists thought it should, and his short-term memory..." He shrugged, an awkward and painfully expressive gesture. "So that's what I'm for." He'd led the way through a lovingly maintained Arts & Crafts bungalow and now, opening a pair of French doors, said, "He'll be out here. I can't keep him inside if it's above freezing, and sometimes even when it isn't. And don't worry--he loves visitors, although he may or may not remember that I told him about you."
They followed Demmer out into a rose garden bedded down carefully against the winter. There was a neat postage-stamp worth of lawn, and then a massive oak tree that must have been here longer than the house.
"This must be spectacular in June," Todd said respectfully.
Demmer gave them a shy, quirky smile. "I'm an armchair rosarian, quite literally. I make all the decisions and Marmaduke's niece Charlotte--the only decent one of his whole damn family--comes and does the hard work. Marmaduke is death on weeds." The affection in his voice was so clear and warm that Reyes was almost embarrassed.
But then a man emerged from behind the oak tree and strode across the garden to meet them. He was about Reyes' height and a good twenty pounds lighter. His hair, showing a sharp widow's peak, was gingery; it must have been deep auburn when he was younger. There was the slightest hitch in his stride, if you knew to look for it, but otherwise Reyes would not have guessed there was anything wrong with him--not until he reached them and said in an odd, rusty, abrupt voice, "Hello." He looked immediately to Demmer, who nodded reassurance and approval and made the introductions.
Stone scowled in thought and then his face cleared into a luminous smile. "F. B. I," he said with careful distinctness, and it was impossible not to smile back at him.
"Yes," Reyes said. "We're pleased to meet you, Mr. Stone." He offered his hand; Stone's grip was harder than Demmer's, fiercer. It was an odd echo of the young man Reyes had met in the files, in the neat, sharp, black writing, the precise, methodical laying out of facts.
"Let's go in and sit down," Demmer suggested. "Can I offer you anything? Tea? Coffee? I made scones, if you're willing to trust my baking."
Reyes would have refused, but Todd said, "I would love a scone," and Reyes followed his lead, knowing that Todd was the better interrogator of the two of them--and knowing that sending mixed signals would be of no help. And Demmer was clearly pleased, tugging Stone with him into the kitchen while Reyes and Todd chose chairs in the small living room.
"This isn't a social visit," Reyes muttered to Todd.
"Yes, it damn well is," Todd muttered back. "It won't kill you to make nice for once." He sounded ludicrously, painfully, like Reyes' second wife, and Reyes caved, to the extent of asking, when Demmer returned (Stone trailing him with the generously laden tea-tray), about the books threatening to overflow from the room's many bookcases.
"My hobby," Demmer said with a shrug. "The Nazis and the nature of evil."
"Some hobby," said Todd.
Demmer's mouth quirked. "Marmaduke used to call it a hobby-horse. I'm German--my parents emigrated from the Ruhr a matter of weeks before I was born. It's hard not to be obsessed. And when you grow up with McCarthy on one side and the KKK on the other..."
Reyes bit into a scone to keep himself from crowding Todd. It was unexpectedly excellent, and for a moment he wasn't faking absorption. Todd said, "You think evil exists as an absolute, then?"
"Enh." Demmer grimaced, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. "I don't think it exists outside human subjectivity, if that's what you mean. But I do think it is possible for people to know that what they do is evil and do it all the same. And I think that is possible whether they are legally sane or not. All these debates about Hitler's sanity--of course he wasn't sane. But that doesn't mean he didn't know what he was doing."
Stone, who had been sitting where he could watch Demmer's face, got up and began wandering the room. He seemed to be searching for something, but when Reyes looked a question, Demmer shook his head. "It could be anything. Or nothing. I try not to interfere unless he asks for my help. To leave him some privacy."
Todd said, "Is self-awareness your criterion for evil, then?"
"Oh, it's more complicated than that," Demmer said with a self-mocking edge. "People can do evil things without knowing, and their lack of awareness does not make their actions any less evil. And how do you judge someone who would know their actions were evil if it were not for the mental illness that compels those same actions?"
"Would you call McCain simply mentally ill, then?" Reyes asked.
"'Simply?' No, not simply. But that's why you've come, isn't it?" And when they looked at him blankly, he said, "To ask about the report. We've been waiting for you for thirty years."
"That's a hell of a line," Todd said after a moment.
"Well, it's true. We kept expecting someone to ask questions, especially when Marmaduke got McCain committed to Idlewood--"
"How did you find out about Idlewood?" Reyes asked, even though he'd sworn to himself he wasn't going to interrupt. "I'd never heard of it."
"Ah," Demmer said uncomfortably. "That would be because of Marmaduke's Great-Uncle Horace."
"Great-Uncle Horace?" Todd echoed, sounding nearly as bewildered as Reyes felt.
"Horace Buford," Demmer said, still looking deeply uncomfortable. "He, ah, went mad in 1927. He murdered his wife, her sister, two housemaids, and the cook. Butchered them and hung them like deer in the smokehouse. He offered to let the butler help. The butler chose instead to run the three miles into town and get the police. When they went out to arrest Mr. Buford, he killed one deputy, winged the other, and--the way Marmaduke told me the story--nearly emasculated the sheriff before his older brother, Cyrus Buford, got there and talked him into giving himself up.
"The problem was, he knew what he'd done, and he said he'd do it again if he got the chance. Said it was all women were good for. He was clearly insane and clearly dangerous, and the Bufords were much too wealthy and well-connected. So he was put in Idlewood, where Marmaduke's father visited him every month. Marmaduke had to go with him when he was a little boy. That's how he knew Idlewood could handle a...patient? prisoner? A man like McCain, and how he knew they'd obey special instructions. They have, haven't they?" His eyes were suddenly sharp.
"Almost," Todd said. "An orderly was killed a month ago. McCain was aiming for me."
"Ah God," Demmer said. "It was what we were most afraid would happen. I guess, really, I should be surprised it took this long."
"It won't happen again," Reyes said, wanting to take that defeated slump out of Demmer's shoulders. "The doctors are listening to us now, and they're putting better precautions in place."
"Plexiglas," Todd said. "Apparently, it was the first time in thirty years McCain had tried anything. They got sloppy, and he saw his chance. Or he just wanted a better target than an orderly."
"No," Demmer said, surprising them both. "Not better. Worse. He'd want a sinner. Not just someone doing their job. He'd want someone he knew was chaff."
"Chaff?" Reyes said, feeling suddenly cold. What was the opposite of nostalgia?
Demmer frowned at them. "I thought you said you'd read our report."
"We thought we had," Todd said, suddenly alert--rather like a beagle who sees the Master of Hunt approaching.
"It said you went to talk to Edgar McCain on December 2, 1964," Reyes said. "That in the course of questioning, you realized the murderer was Edgar McCain's brother Clemson. In the ensuing struggle, Agent Stone was concussed and Edgar McCain killed, and you brought Clemson McCain in. That was all."
"That son of a bitch," Demmer said in tones of wonder.
"Stone?" Reyes said.
"No, no. Marmaduke wouldn't--even if he hadn't worked like a dog on that report. Ralph Halliday. Our then-boss. God, I'm surprised he didn't manufacture evidence of arsenic in the autopsy reports while he was at it. He didn't, did he?"
"No," Reyes said.
"Probably didn't understand them," Demmer muttered viciously.
"But why--" Todd began.
"Ambition. It was all he thought about. He didn't want any--what did he call it? 'Twilight Zone crap,' I think. He didn't want any of that on his record where Mr. Hoover would find it. He must have sanitized our report before anyone else could see it. God damn him."
Todd and Reyes traded a glance; Reyes could see lightning-fast reassessments and recalculations going on behind Todd's mild front. "Mr. Demmer," Todd said, "I have a tape-recorder--" He pulled it out of his pocket in demonstration. "And I promise you that Agent Reyes and I want to find the truth, not hide it. Will you tell us what really happened on December 2nd, 1964?"
Demmer glanced out the window, where Stone could be seen moving dreamily among the sleeping roses. "I guess it's down to me and Clemson McCain," he said. And then, with a surge of vigor. "Yes. Yes, I'll tell you. Turn your tape-recorder on."
We never thought (said Karl Demmer) that Edgar McCain had anything personally to do with the murders. For one thing, we had developed a great respect for his business acumen--he would never have done anything that would threaten his livelihood. For another, the only thing we felt we knew for certain about the murders was that they were being committed immediately after the tent-meetings. And of all the people involved, Edgar McCain was the one whose time could be accounted for, minute by minute. He couldn't go to the bathroom without a bodyguard to keep the faithful off him--there was no way he could sneak off and murder some random stranger.
So when we went to talk to McCain, it wasn't because we thought we were going to catch the murderer, or even get any useful leads. But we decided to do it anyway, because we were fairly certain the murderer was a McCain employee, and anyway, it gave us an excuse to poke around McCain's show. And since we were getting exactly nowhere on our official assignment, this seemed like maybe the best chance we were going to get to find evidence of a connection between McCain and the upper echelons of the Ku Klux Klan.
You've met Clemson McCain? Edgar was nothing like him. He was nine or ten years older, a small man, plump and well-kept, and I remember what Marmaduke said about him when we had a minute privately: "a Southern preacher's voice and a Yankee lawyer's eyes." It was true. He had a magnificent voice, all rolling thunder, and his eyes were cold. Actually, that's where he and his brother did look alike. They had the same eyes.
He was very polite to us, very cooperative. He was genuinely distressed about the murders, though I thought it was mostly from the PR angle. He told us to go where we liked and ask any questions we wanted to; he'd let his "boys" know. And he gave us complimentary tickets to his tent-meeting that evening. He called it a faith revival and assured us, with a cold little smile, that if we needed the touch of a healer, he'd make sure we were first in line.
Marmaduke declined without turning a hair and without sounding like he thought it was a con job, although I knew he did. And we went out to investigate.
We spent all afternoon at it. Edgar introduced us to his brother Clemson, told us Clemson would make sure we got anything we needed. Clemson McCain didn't offer to shake hands. I was glad at the time, even gladder in retrospect. Other than that, I didn't make much of him. He was a big, lumpish, sullen-faced boy; Marmaduke and I both thought he was completely under his brother's thumb.
We came up with a big fat nothing and ate dinner at one end of a long trestle table, jostling hips and shoulders with McCain's boys. Fried chicken and potato salad and iced tea, compliments of a local restaurant. We listened to the conversation, which told us nothing we didn't already know, and debated not very seriously about whether we were going to go to the "faith meeting" or not. We both knew we had to.
I have to tell you, I'd never seen anything like it in my life, and I don't retain any clear memories of it at all. Marmaduke understood more of it than I did; I wish he could tell you about it. I remember the singing and Edgar McCain's voice talking about the love of God and the glory of judgment and I remember the way he put his hands on the first supplicant of the evening, careful and measured and like he was posing for photographers who weren't there. But the rest of it is a smoky, sweaty, frightening blur.
It was over finally, and we spilled with the rest of the audience into the crisp night air. Marmaduke said, "I want to know more about how he picks the people he heals. Because that must have been why Arlene Summers went, and he didn't pick her. Come on." I followed him around to the back of the tent, where there was a second tent, a little one, that was Edgar McCain's office, and the first sign of trouble was that he'd sent the bodyguards away.
There were men guarding the tent, but they were all well back. Out of earshot, I realized later. They weren't sure what to do about us--McCain hadn't rescinded his order about letting us go wherever we wanted, and none of the men wanted to cross us. Most of them had records. So when Marmaduke walked toward the tent like McCain was expecting him, none of the roustabouts said a word. I followed him and prayed our luck would hold.
It did, mostly because it was pitch-dark once we were outside the radius of the Coleman lanterns, and no one except me saw Marmaduke veer away from the front of the tent. I followed him around to the back, and then I heard what he had: Edgar and Clemson McCain going at it hammer and tongs. In less than thirty seconds, we knew that Clemson was the murderer and Edgar wasn't the least bit surprised.
The weird part is, that wasn't what they were arguing about. They were arguing about Edgar McCain's faith healing, about the laying on of hands. Edgar was shouting about blasphemy and witchcraft, and Clemson shouted back, "But it works the same way! It's just the same, except my touch is death and yours is life. So if your gift is from God, how can you say mine isn't? How can you say I'm not doing God's work in clearing away the chaff?"
"Murder is not the work of God!" boomed Edgar, and I remember thinking that either he was a world-class hypocrite or he really hadn't had anything to do with the assassination of Medgar Evers. But he lost his magnificence abruptly when he added, "Daddy was right about you."
"Was he?" Clemson said, much more quietly, and I felt Marmaduke tense. "But he touched us both. How can one of us do the work of God and the other be the spawn of Hell when he touched us both?"
"It was for God to choose," Edgar said, but he sounded almost nervous.
"Was it? It was for Isaac to choose between his sons, but it wasn't by his choice that Jacob got his birthright and Esau was left with a mess of pottage. Daddy chose, not God. He set you at his right hand, but I was always at his left. I am his son just as much as you, and I carry on his work."
"No, you don't," Edgar said savagely. "Your power is of the Devil's cohort. It is nothing next to the gift of God."
"No?" said Clemson McCain. "Well, let's find out."
Marmaduke bolted for the front of the tent; I think he realized what McCain was going to do. I didn't realize until I followed him into the tent and found Edgar McCain convulsing on the ground, Clemson standing over him. The tent really was set up like an office: a long folding table with chairs on both sides. The McCains were on the other side of the table from us, which probably saved both our lives.
Marmaduke looked at me. I don't think I've ever seen him so completely at a loss. "He just touched him," he said. "That's all he did."
Clemson McCain lunged forward. I don't know if he was trying to reach Marmaduke or the tent flap, but either way, Marmaduke stepped backward to avoid his hands and tripped over a chair leg. I heard his head collide with something on the way down--later, I figured out it was McCain's strongbox. I already had my gun out and I fired a warning shot through the tent roof. McCain was still trapped behind the table, and he stayed there. I called to Marmaduke and got no answer, and by then the bravest of the roustabouts had come to find out what was going on. I told him to get the police because Clemson McCain had just murdered his brother, and if I hadn't needed my gun to keep McCain off of me, I would have needed it to keep them off of him. They would have lynched him without another word being spoken.
Edgar McCain died before the police arrived, and it changed something in Clemson, because when we heard the sirens, he said to me--and it was all he ever said to me, first to last--"You are righteous men doing righteous work, and I bear the Mark of Cain not just in name now, but in truth. I will not harm you."
I still told the police not to let him touch them, and Marmaduke and I repeated that warning until we thought we were going to go as crazy as everyone thought we were. But either they paid attention to us, or Clemson McCain kept his word, because he was committed to Idlewood without causing another death. Until now.
Demmer cleared his throat, took a drink of his long-cold tea. "I think that's everything. At least, it's everything I remember."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Demmer," Todd said. "We can't tell you how helpful you've been."
"I do have one question," Reyes said. "Do you think Edgar McCain's claims had any basis in reality?"
"What, the faith healing?" Demmer looked puzzled and bemused, but he gave it consideration. "I don't think we ever saw any evidence one way or the other. I know everyone around McCain believed in it, and I think he may have believed it himself. But something like that...you know, those patent medicines didn't do a thing half the time, and sometimes they killed the people who used them--the ones containing radium, for instance--but people swore by them nonetheless. I personally did not, to my knowledge, witness him healing anyone, but that's all I can tell you. Oh, and Marmaduke thought it was nonsense, but that's not evidence either, except that he was both hard-headed and rather cynical."
"Thank you," Reyes said. "And--not to do a bad Columbo impression, but just one other thing. Would you be willing to interview Clemson McCain?"
"No," Demmer said, as immediate as a reflex. He blinked, seeming startled at his own fervor, and said in a milder tone, "I've been out of the game for fifteen years, and I was never any good at the kind of 'interview' you mean."
"It was just a thought," Reyes said. "You might have better luck with him than we've had."
"Not me," Demmer said. "I told you, he never talked to me and I never talked to him. He talked to Marmaduke some, I think--Marmaduke hated loose ends, he was like a terrier catching rats about it. But, well." He gave them a tired, helpless shrug.
"We've taken up enough of your time," Todd said firmly.
"It's nearly six," Demmer said, looking at his watch. "Good lord. I need to bring Marmaduke in before he breaks an ankle, but--I'm very sorry, but would you mind leaving before I do? He hates having people leave, but if you're gone before he comes back inside, it won't upset him. I'm not sure if he forgets that there were visitors, or if he just assumes that he's forgotten them leaving, but either way, it's much easier on him."
"Of course," Reyes said. "We understand."
Demmer came with them to the door, shook hands with Reyes while Todd got their coats. "Oh," he said, "there is one more thing. A curiosity, if you will. Of all Clemson McCain's victims, Edgar was the only one whose autopsy revealed the presence of arsenic."
"It what?" Todd said.
"But it's not what killed him," Demmer said, that quirky smile just barely touching his mouth again. "They were both arsenic eaters and had been for years."
"Arsenic eaters?" Reyes felt his eyebrows go up. He knew that it was possible to build a tolerance to arsenic by eating minuscule amounts daily, but he'd always thought that was one of those things you learned reading mystery novels, not something he'd ever come across himself.
"Truth is stranger than fiction." Todd sounded almost gleeful.
Demmer actually grinned for a moment. "Apparently, it was part of their father's shtick--he ate arsenic on stage to show that the power of God was keeping him safe. Edgar didn't do that, but we gathered that he believed it was part of what gave him his abilities."
"And Clemson McCain also ate arsenic?" Reyes asked.
"Ralph must have edited that out, too," Demmer said. "Yes. He was saturated with it."
"Wow," said Todd.
"Quite," Reyes said. "Thank you, Mr. Demmer. I'm not exaggerating when I say your help has been invaluable."
"You're very welcome," said Demmer, and they heard him lock the door behind them before he went to bring his partner in from the dark.
Somewhere in Virginia, November 23, 1995
"Fuck," said Solomon Todd.
Reyes, half dozing in the passenger seat, jerked awake, but Todd barely even noticed him. He signaled, pulled over to the side of State Route 643, and said, "Fuck," again.
"Sol?" Reyes said cautiously.
"We showed him how to do it."
"Showed who how to do what?" Reyes asked, even more cautiously. Todd didn't blame him. Discovering that the man behind the wheel had flipped his everloving lid wasn't what you wanted after a hard day interviewing crippled ex-FBI agents.
"Fuck," he said for a third time and pounded his fist against the wheel. Then he forced himself to sit back, relax his shoulders, and take a few deep, even breaths. Reyes, God bless him, didn't try to interrupt.
Todd counted to ten in Portuguese, then back down to one. Another deep breath and he was able to say calmly, "Until we waltzed into the picture, Clemson McCain thought he had to eat arsenic in order to kill."
"Where are you getting that?" Reyes said. It was too dark to see him, but Todd could imagine the frown.
"From a number of things," Todd said and laid them out there in their motor pool Crown Vic with cars rushing by them. "One, Clemson McCain and his brother were both arsenic eaters, following in their father's footsteps. Two, Edgar McCain believed the arsenic was necessary to his ability to heal. Three, Demmer heard Clemson tell Edgar that their power worked in the same way. You with me so far?"
"'Except my touch is death and yours is life,'" Reyes muttered. "Go on."
"For thirty years, McCain has been sitting there in Idlewood as meek as a lamb. That's four, and five is the fact that he was surprised when you asked him why his victims all looked like they died of arsenic poisoning. I thought he was surprised because you were telling him you knew about his 'gift.' But that wasn't it at all. He was surprised because, to you, the arsenic wasn't necessary to the murders."
"Sol, are you sure?"
"No, of course not," Todd said savagely. "But it explains why he's been a model prisoner all these years--he didn't think he had a choice. And it explains something he said to me. He said he regretted the ugliness--not the killing, but the ugliness, and when I said arsenic was an ugly way to die, he agreed as if I'd put my finger on the crux of the problem. He's figured it out, and we were the stupid patsies who handed him the key all tied up with a big red bow." He wanted to hit the steering wheel again, but he counted to ten in Arabic instead.
After a while, Reyes said, "The responsibility still lies with him. We may have given him the knowledge, but he chose to use it."
"I know that," Todd said. "But just at the moment, it doesn't help a whole hell of a lot."
"No," Reyes agreed. "It doesn't."
They sat there a while longer before Reyes said in an oddly gentle voice, "Do you want me to drive?"
"Nah," Todd said. "I'm done. Let's get going before the Staties decide to come ask if we're in trouble." He signaled, looked carefully back down the dark reach of the road, and pulled out. Back to Quantico and their grail quest. You never thought you were Galahad anyway, he told himself mockingly and turned on the radio against the possibility that Reyes would want to talk.
But five miles later, he turned it off again. "What was that about Edgar McCain being for real?"
"Oh, just a thought."
"He said evasively," Todd said. "What kind of a thought?"
"Well, Clemson McCain said his power worked the same way his brother's did, and I wondered, what if that were true?"
"What, you mean Edgar was killing people instead of healing them?"
"No, not that. But, well." Reyes cleared his throat. "What if not everyone affected by the anomaly is driven to sadism?"
Todd took a moment to process that. "Are you thinking contamination or genetics?"
"If it were contamination, we'd see clusters of anomaloids, and we don't. Look, this is only speculation. I'm not even willing to commit to the idea that Edgar was affected. All we have is thirty-year-old hearsay, and not even from people claiming to be healed."
"You know, I've learned to recognize that tone in your voice. You want something."
Reyes made a disclaiming noise, but almost immediately said, "I just think it might be worthwhile to see if you can find anyone who does claim to have been healed by Edgar McCain. Or by the father."
"And while I'm peeling your bonbons, what are you going to be doing?"
"I'm going to start looking for possible anomaloids who aren't killing people."
"I'll ask if you can borrow Diogenes' lantern while I'm out," Todd said.
And Reyes, richly amused, said, "Oh ye of little faith." To which Todd had no comeback at all.
Waco, TX, December 3, 1964
The nearest hospital was in Waco. Stone had only jolting, horrible memories of the ambulance ride. Then there was an endless hell of people wanting to know his name and the date and if he could tell them how many fingers they were holding up, and all of them shouting. Stone wanted to tell them he was right there, no need to shout, but he wasn't sure he was.
Sometimes, Demmer was there, looking worried, but he kept changing into a nurse with brassy red hair and a bosom like the Goodyear Blimp. And then Stone would blink and he'd be looking at a doctor who wanted to know how many fingers he was holding up.
On one of the occasions when Demmer was Demmer, Stone remembered what he had to tell him. "Don't let him touch you."
"I didn't," Demmer promised. "I won't." And then he was gone, and the nurse wanted to know about birthdays.
It was a very long night.
Finally, though, Stone realized that he was seeing the sun come up through an east-facing hospital window. He was in Waco, Texas, and his head hurt like a iron bastard.
"December third, 1964," he said to the brassy nurse. "And my name really is Marmaduke."
"That's what your partner tells us," she said. Along with the brass and the bosom, she had a lovely smile. "Can you see him for a moment? He's been here all night, and we'd really like him to get some rest. He's worried sick about you."
Another of Demmer's conquests, Stone thought, and might have grinned if he hadn't been afraid it would hurt. "Sure. I don't have anything better to do."
Demmer looked awful, gray and stubbled and with almost raccoon-like bags under his eyes. "Hey," Stone said. "I'm all right."
"That's what you say," Demmer said. "You missed the exciting part when they were trying to decide if your brain was bleeding."
"Sorry," Stone said meekly.
"I'm just glad your eyes are focusing again." He came over to the bed; from this angle he looked obscenely tall, like a monument to milk and red meat. "Do you need a status report?"
"I assume if anything was FUBAR, you wouldn't be here."
Demmer shrugged and almost smiled. "Well, there is that. McCain's in the Waco lock-up. I've put the fear of God into them about staying away from his hands. I just hope it's enough."
Stone hadn't exactly forgotten about what had happened, but it was still a shock to hear Demmer confirm that what he remembered was the truth. Clemson McCain had sent a man into convulsions with his bare hands. "The other McCain? Edgar?"
Demmer shook his head. "He died before the police got there, much less a doctor. But I talked to Dr. Patterson, and he says if it's like the others, there was nothing a doctor could have done."
"There was nothing Beeler could do," Stone remembered.
"There's no actual poison, so there's no way to get rid of it." Demmer shifted uneasily. "How did he do it?"
"I don't have the least fucking idea," Stone said and grimaced an apology for the language. "What I want is to be sure he never does it again."
"Yeah," Demmer said, that almost-ja. "Me, too."
"My head hurts," Stone said, "and that nice nurse-blimp wants you to get some rest. We can talk later, okay?"
"Okay, Duke," Demmer said, and smiled at him as bright as the rising December sun. Stone smiled back and shut his eyes. Demmer might have touched his hair before he left the room, but the touch was so light it could have been Stone's imagination, and he never, then or later, found a way to ask.
The nurse would be back in a minute, and she'd probably have a doctor with her. Marmaduke Stone, eyes shut and his head like living in a kettledrum, was glad to be alive and in Waco. And glad that whatever came next, it didn't have to come today.
Ashton, VA, December 23, 1995
"So this is Christmas," Todd sang to himself, walking from the parking lot to the front doors of Idlewood. It was the first time he'd been back since the death of Anthony Clifford; it had taken this long for the new arrangements for Clemson McCain to be finalized and installed. Browne had stopped complaining about interference, and while the unit chief still looked at Todd like he caused migraines when they passed in the halls, Reyes was having increased success in persuading the higher-ups to take him seriously. There was even a trickle of funding.
The security guards in their vast marble lobby were as polite and uncompromising as ever, but this time Todd was allowed to bypass Browne's office. Velasquez came down to the main entrance for him. He was better turned out than he had been the last time, and Todd might have been mistaken, but he thought Velasquez looked a little less paunchy, too. They shook hands, and Velasquez said, "C'mon this way. You don't have to go down to the basement no more."
"Hallelujah and amen," Todd murmured and caught the bright flash of Velasquez's smile.
They were in the elevator when Velasquez said, "Lewis quit, you know. Said he wasn't going to work with no freakshow voodoo shit."
"Can't blame him," Todd said easily. "But you stayed."
"What else am I gonna do?" Velasquez said. "I only got through the GED on prayer and sweat like golf balls. And besides, I figure there's gotta be somebody here who knows. So we don't get stupid again." A pause, and he said, almost defiantly, "Lewis fucked up."
"Yes," Todd said. "He was sloppy and I wasn't paying enough attention to stop him."
"Man, that ain't your job. Lewis and Clifford, it was their job, and they fucked up."
The elevator stopped, chimed politely, and opened its doors. Todd followed Velasquez into the smell of new construction, along a corridor with a clean white linoleum floor and tall, pale yellow walls, to a steel door complete with number pad and card reader, deeply incongruous in Idlewood's archaic grandeur. Solomon Todd was very fucking happy to see it.
"Okay," said Velasquez. "Here's the new drill. You go in there. I go back along the hall--" He pointed. "--to our brand new state-of-the-fucking-art security room, where I monitor everything that happens. Visual only, no sound. You'll see the Plexiglas and the telephone, and I figure you know what to do with that. That's all there is. Anything you want to give to Mr. McCain, you give it to me and I'll see that he gets it."
Mr. McCain, Todd noted. That was a change, too.
"When you're done, just hang up the phone, and I'll know to come let you out. If something goes wrong--I don't come or something--there's a box right beside the door that has another phone. That one's for the in-house system, and it'll let you talk to anybody in Idlewood. The security room phone number is the first one on the list. Okay?"
"Okay," Todd agreed and did not watch as Velasquez entered a code and swiped his card. He pushed the door open, and Todd walked into the monster's new lair. Velasquez closed the door behind him, and Todd refused to feel anything so clichéd as a chill down his spine.
Clemson McCain was waiting for him.
He was unchanged: hulking and pasty and expressionless as the moon. No, Todd thought, backtracking. He was changed. There was an attentiveness to McCain that hadn't been there before. It was like...Todd was glad of the stage business of setting down his bag, bending to pull out notepad and pen, because just for a second he wasn't sure he had control of his face. It was like Clemson McCain had woken up.
Armed with his pen and paper, Todd sat down at the small table someone had thoughtfully provided. The telephone was on the desk, an old Bakelite rotary model of the sort Todd hadn't seen in years. Somebody's sense of humor, or just that Idlewood, like every other institution in America, had dozens of the damn things collecting dust in their storage rooms? They'd be there come Judgment Day, still in perfect working order. The phone was an unlovely mustard beige; the card in the center of the dial read IDLEWOOD 4, and Todd wondered what had happened to IDLEWOODS 1 through 3.
He picked up the handset.
McCain was there ahead of him, seated at a mirror image table. He had only a handset, Todd noticed, jacked into a panel mounted flush with the wall. Before he could stop himself, Todd imagined IDLEWOOD 1 sealed up in the wall like Fortunato. "For the love of God, Montressor," he murmured.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Todd?" McCain almost sounded disconcerted.
"Sorry," Todd said, although he wasn't, particularly. "My mind wandered. How are your new quarters, Mr. McCain?"
McCain's customary pause, and he said, "Very pleasant." Lie, irony, or simple truth--Todd couldn't tell.
"Good," Todd said. "I have some questions about the men who arrested you. Agent Demmer and Agent Stone."
"I remember them," said McCain. "I hope they're well."
"In the pink," said Todd. He took McCain through the events of December 2, 1964, noting with the ease of extensive practice where his account differed from Demmer's (and he wondered fretfully about Stone's report, lost to time and Ralph Halliday). None of the differences seemed statistically significant; thirty-one years, and there was no way to tell misremembering from deliberate falsehood. No way to check.
McCain made no attempt to avoid or deny his murder of his brother. Nor to justify it. Todd pushed a little, and McCain said, "You know the story of Cain and Abel. Nothing more needs to be said."
Todd considered that. "Was Edgar your father's favorite?"
"Edgar shared his gift," said McCain, neither confirming nor denying.
"And how did you feel about Edgar?"
"I thought you were asking about Mr. Stone and Mr. Demmer," McCain said, and another man might have sounded sulky.
"Did you have something else to say about them?"
McCain's pause was longer than usual. "They call you Duke, don't they?" he said, with a gesture indicating the entire world beyond the steel-reinforced door.
"And if they do?" Todd said, wondering how the hell McCain had picked that up. It must have been before he was sealed in behind the Plexiglas.
"Oh, nothing. It's just funny, is all. That's what Mr. Demmer called Mr. Stone, that night in the tent when my brother died. I don't think he knew I heard him, though."
"Coincidence is a funny thing," Todd said easily. "You told Demmer he and Stone were righteous in their work. Did you mean it?"
"So you didn't kill them."
"Do you see your work as ridding the world of the unrighteous?"
"No," said McCain. "I did, once, believe that my work in the world was to clear away the chaff left behind by the harvest of the grain, but I don't believe that any longer."
"Because I killed my brother and God did not strike me dead. He was not chaff. So I have come to believe that my work is not what I thought it."
"What do you believe it is?"
Clemson McCain's smile, which Todd had not seen before, was not a pretty thing. "I believe that is between me and God."
"Was killing Anthony Clifford part of your work?"
"The vessel was weak," McCain said, almost impatiently. "That doesn't mean the water is impure."
Todd decided that was McCain's way of saying Clifford had been a mistake. "What about me?"
Just for a moment, the predator behind McCain's eyes was assessing him with naked hunger, and Solomon Todd's reptile brain, which did not care about the inch of Plexiglas between him and the monster, said it was time to leave. Like, yesterday. He stayed where he was, kept that calm, inquisitive, encouraging look on his face, the one that made him think of his mother saying, Someday your face is going to freeze like that, Solomon Todd, and he waited.
McCain blinked, and the shutters came down again. He said, "You are...imperfect."
His hand, Todd realized. The fingertips that weren't. And the connection hit him like a lightning bolt, so hard he was surprised his hair wasn't standing on end. "Like the people your brother didn't heal. The people you killed."
"The chaff," said McCain. If anything, he seemed pleased that Todd understood.
"But how did you know?"
It was a factual question, and as he was coming to realize, Clemson McCain was happy to answer factual questions. "At the beginning of the meeting, we would pass around a box. People put petitions in it--slips of paper with their names and their affliction. It was the only way to be sure that everyone had a chance, instead of only those who could fight their way to the front or bribe an usher--both things my father's meetings were notable for. Then, while Edgar preached, it was my job to sort the petitions. Some things Edgar did not like to work on."
"Epilepsy. He was not convinced that it was not, itself, the hand of God. Advanced cancers--even if he could heal the cancer, it was often too late and the body was too weak to recover. Digestive troubles. Most skin conditions."
McCain nodded grave approval. "Yes. Then there would be a break, for singing in the years when we had someone in our company with that gift. Edgar was tone-deaf, as am I. Edgar would come back to the private tent and make his choices from those I had selected for him."
"How did he choose?"
"God worked through him," McCain said, almost reprovingly. "Told him those who could be saved, those who were worthy of the blessing he had to offer. The rest were chaff."
Fair game, Todd translated in his notes. "And how did you choose?"
"I chose those whom God showed me."
And Todd was pretty sure that translated to sheer blind luck. Whichever poor bastard he saw first and could recognize from the information in the petition. Randall Washburn's skin condition, Arlene Summers' withered arm, Isabel Purdy's goiter. "You never sought out a specific person?"
The pause was even longer than usual. Finally, McCain said, "Once."
"Who was that?"
"A man. A veteran. One arm had been amputated, and he suffered terrible pain from it."
"From the stump?"
"From the hand. They call it phantom pain now. He said in his petition that the pain was worse than anything he'd felt from the amputation itself, and that it never ceased. He said he could not bear it. Edgar said there was nothing he could do. So I...I sought that man out after the meeting. Conrad Fisher was his name."
Todd realized that McCain was embarrassed. Embarrassed at having shown this backwards sort of mercy. "When was this?"
1957 again. The year McCain's father died and he started killing. "Was Conrad Fisher the first of the chaff you cleared, ah, personally?"
The silence stretched and stretched, and just when Todd was mentally debating whether he pushed or let it go (for today), McCain said, "A young woman named Georgiana Smith." He'd closed down, making it apparent by contrast how nearly animated he'd become; either he was alarmed by how much he'd said about Conrad Fisher or there was something about Georgiana Smith he wasn't prepared to discuss. In either case--Todd glanced at his watch--they'd been at this for nearly four hours and the sky beyond McCain's bolted, barred, and unbreakable window was already dark.
"Thank you, Mr. McCain," he said. "I think that's enough for today."
McCain made a funny not-quite motion, and Todd did not lower the handset. "Was there something else?"
The pause was more than a pause; it was an actual hesitation. Clemson McCain said, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Todd."
Everything in Solomon Todd wanted to put the phone down without responding, to turn and leave without a backward glance. But he looked at the room McCain described as "very pleasant," thought about the life McCain knew himself condemned to behind his Plexiglas wall. Thought about spending every Christmas of his life in Idlewood. Thought about Fortunato and Montressor.
"Merry Christmas, Mr. McCain," Solomon Todd said and hung up the phone.