The Sisters Strange
A web exclusive Charlie Parker novella
By now it should have been clear to me that the affairs of Raum Buker and the Sisters Strange, whatever form or combination they might take, were really none of my concern. Neither sister gave signs of welcoming my interest, and Raum Buker was unlikely to buck that trend. On the other hand, I’d made a vocation out of curiosity, and it was too late to seek alternative employment now.
But it wasn’t solely a matter of my personal stubbornness. Raum had trouble following him like a dog in heat, and he’d brought it to the doors of the Sisters Strange. They might have believed themselves capable of handling him, and under ordinary circumstances they would doubtless have been right; Raum was no match for two smart women, because most men aren’t a match for even one smart woman. But you don’t watch someone tear strips from his own skin, especially someone with Raum Buker’s history, without becoming concerned for those who might find themselves in his orbit. If I walked away, and something happened to either or both of the Sisters Strange, I’d have to live with my failure to act, and I already had enough guilt to sustain me for two lifetimes.
I ate lunch at the Bayou Kitchen while I made some calls, and searched the internet. Raum Buker had indeed served time at East Jersey State Prison, under Title 2C of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice: five years for manslaughter, which was at the very lowest end of the sentencing scale. Raum had killed a man named Clayton Dempsey in Lindenwold during an argument over a parking space that spilled over into a bar. The disagreement escalated, Dempsey threatened Raum with a broken bottle, and Raum stabbed him to death with the knife used by the bartender to slice lemons.
A couple of witnesses subsequently recanted and claimed that Dempsey had never actually handled the bottle, but enough doubt was sown in the minds of the jury for Raum Buker to have avoided a first degree felony charge, and a sentence of ten to thirty years. Instead, the defense of reasonable provocation in the heat of passion was accepted, and Raum got sent down for five. Under New Jersey’s mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, he served fifty-three months in prison. East Jersey was the state’s second oldest facility, housing maximum, medium, and minimum security prisoners. It wasn’t an easy place to do time, and nobody would be rushing back for a second taste of its hospitality, but it wasn’t as bad as New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, which was grim as all hell, with a reputation for inmate violence. If that pentacle tattoo represented the sum total of Raum Buker’s scarring from almost five years in the New Jersey prison system, he could consider himself halfway fortunate.
I was curious to know what company Raum had been keeping down there. A man who emerges from prison and gets himself a pair of Waffen SS cracker bolts on his arm has been hanging around with white supremacists. Someone who comes out with a Pagans tattoo is likely to start shopping for a motorcycle. But a prisoner who returns to freedom bearing an occult symbol on his arm – well, he’s fallen into some very strange society indeed.
Raum Buker had taken a short-term lease on a unit in the Braycott Arms off Cumberland Avenue. The Braycott had once operated as a railroad hotel, back when Union Station was located on St. John Street. Union Station was torn down in 1961 to be replaced with a strip mall that nobody ever liked, although back then the future looked, smelled, and sounded like an automobile. But even by the standards of grand nineteenth century railroad architecture, the old station had been something special, designed to resemble a medieval French chateau, with a high clocktower and pink granite walls. People wept openly when that tower fell, or so my grandfather told me.
Nobody would have wept if the Braycott Arms fell, particularly if it took some of its tenants with it. Even back in the day, the Braycott had catered to a lower order of traveler than the nearby Inn at St. John, which had since reinvented itself as a boutique hotel. By contrast, the Braycott’s current owners had a reputation for tolerating antisocial behavior to the point of active encouragement, and had they conducted background checks before renting, every room in the place would have remained empty. It wasn’t somewhere to call home, just somewhere from whence to call home. The probation service tried to discourage recently released prisoners from taking a bed there, but sometimes the ex-cons didn’t have a great deal of choice, the majority of landlords being understandably reluctant to welcome malefactors into their buildings. As a result, the Braycott frequently held more men with criminal records than the Cumberland County Jail.
The longtime manager was a guy named Bobby Wadlin, who lived and worked out of a single-bedroom apartment just inside the front door, and would have broken a sweat just by standing still. He spent most of his day behind a scarred Plexiglas screen with a slot for accepting money and dispensing mail and keys, and had never been known to take a vacation. During disputes over rent or damage, he would reluctantly take it upon himself to act as a moderating influence on the faceless owners, like Simon of Cyrene being pressed into assisting Christ with the cross. Since Wadlin was one of the owners, along with two brothers and a sister-in-law who wanted nothing more to do with the Braycott than to cash the rent checks, negotiations didn’t take very long, and usually ended unsatisfactorily for the tenants involved.
Wadlin, true to form, was seated behind his screen when I arrived, watching an old Western in black-and-white on a portable TV hooked up to a DVD player. Wadlin was always watching old Westerns in black-and-white. Even if they were made in color, he’d alter the setting so he could view them in monochrome. There was probably a metaphor to be gleaned from this, but it wouldn’t have made me like him any more than I already did, and I didn’t like him at all. Despite the cold, he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a blind man’s tie, the virulence of the latter’s colors perhaps an attempt to compensate for the utter grayness of the rest of his existence.
“Bobby,” I said.
Wadlin kept his eyes fixed on the screen.
“I’m watching my show.”
“What about him?”
“Is he in?”
Wadlin tore his gaze from the TV for long enough to check the key hooks. Residents were not permitted to bring keys with them when they left the premises, not even for a short time, just in case one fell into the wrong hands and was used to gain entry to the Braycott in order surreptitiously to disinfect it.
“Out,” said Wadlin.
“I’d like to take a look at his room.”
“Our guests expect privacy and security.”
I put a twenty in the slot. I figured Will Quinn was good for it. Wadlin, meanwhile, was financially comfortable enough to be offended by the bribe if he chose, but he didn’t so choose. Doing something for nothing was against his principles, or what passed for them in the absence of any actual principles. He also knew that if he didn’t help me, I’d find a way to make life difficult for him down the line, because this wasn’t the first time I’d had business at the Braycott, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
Wadlin produced a spare key from a drawer, leaving the main one on its hook, just in case Raum Buker should return.
“Don’t be too long up there,” said Wadlin.
“I’ll try not to disturb the dirt.”
“You do that,” he said, returning to his show, “and I’ll warn the rats you’re on your way.”
The rooms at the Braycott Arms were larger than those of the average modern hotel but smaller than the average studio apartment. The stairways and halls smelled of cooking and laundry, and I could hear music playing and televisions blaring from behind closed doors. The paintwork was battered, the floorboards were scuffed, and the ceilings had more cracks than a medieval artwork.
Raum Buker occupied a third-floor corner unit. I passed only one person on the way up, and he was too busy conducting a cell phone conversation about pot even to notice me. He stank like a grow house, too, which came with the territory. Ever since Maine legalized recreational marijuana, the sickly-sweet scent had become ubiquitous. You could get a contact high just from calling an Uber. If you stayed in the ride for too long, you had to fight the urge to order fried chicken and listen to “Dark Star” on heavy rotation.
Someone was shouting in the room next to Raum’s, conducting a one-sided argument with an unseen other that didn’t appear to involve a phone, a relentless stream of invective and obscenity punctuated by occasional sobbing. It just added to the constant backdrop of noise at the Braycott Arms. It reminded me of prison. It probably reminded some of the residents of prison, too, which might have been one of the reasons they elected to stay there. I’ve known prisoners who were unable to sleep properly for months after their release because they couldn’t cope with the silence.
I knocked gently on Raum’s door. The main key might have been sitting on the hook in Wadlin’s office, but that didn’t necessarily mean the room was unoccupied. The list of those who’d been shot for making that mistake was worryingly long. Nobody responded, so I used the key. Each of the Braycott’s doors had a peephole, so I couldn’t know if I was being observed from elsewhere, but I was banking on the likelihood that the tenants preferred to mind their own business in the expectation that others would do the same.
Raum Buker’s unit smelled strongly of bleach, but at least it was clean. The door opened directly into a room with windows on two walls. It was furnished with a small double bed, a desk and chair, a vinyl couch, a stovetop, and a microwave. A refrigerator stood on one side of the stovetop, with a closet on the other. The bed was made, and a single cup and dish were drying on a rack by the sink in the bathroom. A cheap flatscreen TV was bolted to the wall in front of the bed, with the remote anchored to the bedside locker by a short length of heavy cable. The room was devoid of pictures or superfluous decoration. Instead there was a stain on the wall above the couch, as though a previous resident had blown his own or someone else’s brains out, leaving the aftermath to be imperfectly concealed.
Raum Buker’s occupancy hadn’t altered the room substantially. A few items of clothing hung in the closet, and his socks, underwear, and T-shirts occupied separate drawers. A pair of boots and a pair of sneakers were arranged on a sheet of plastic by the door. A shelf above the stove held coffee, sugar, breakfast cereal, microwave popcorn, an opened bag of potato chips, and a loaf of sliced white bread. The refrigerator contained milk and unsalted sweet cream butter. I checked under the bed and pulled out a suitcase. It wasn’t locked, and revealed nothing of note when opened. I put it back where I’d found it.
The neatness wasn’t a surprise, not from an ex-con. Prisoners learned how to use space, and the Braycott Arms wasn’t the kind of environment that invited a man to spread out and make himself at home. Yet even by those standards, the room was very much a temporary refuge. It wouldn’t have taken Raum Buker more than five minutes to pack up and depart, leaving no obvious sign that he had ever moved through these environs. I wondered if he had another bolthole, perhaps somewhere up in The County, because whatever was contained here couldn’t possibly have represented all his worldly goods. Spending twenty dollars of Will Quinn’s money on a bribe had, it seemed, bought me absolutely nothing.
I gave the bathroom a second look as I prepared to leave. The medicine cabinet was already open when I arrived, and held only antacid and ibuprofen, along with some herbal sleep remedies that suggested Raum was indeed having difficulty getting a night’s rest. The only element out of place was a sprinkling of black dust between the faucets of the sink. I hadn’t noticed it anywhere but there.
Without thinking, I reached up and closed the cabinet door. My face stared back at me from the mirror, but something was superimposed upon it, a drawing on the glass in what looked like soot:
And I thought that I might not have been the first person to intrude on Raum Buker’s privacy that day.
It didn’t seem wise to linger, so I took a photo of the mark on the mirror with my cellphone, then checked through the peephole to make sure the hallway was clear before I left. The view was foggy, which bothered me for a reason I couldn’t immediately locate. It was a memory of something I’d read, but it wouldn’t come, and forcing it wouldn’t help. Still, no one seemed to be around, so I left the room, made sure the door was locked, and headed for the stairs.
I looked down. Raum Buker was one flight below, and ascending rapidly. Bobby Wadlin could have called up to let me know that Raum was on his way, but that wouldn’t have been his style. If Raum had decided to kick up a fuss about someone trespassing, Wadlin could simply have claimed that the key was stolen while his back was turned, and let Raum try to figure out the logistics once he’d calmed down.
The elevator was on one of the other levels, so that wasn’t an option. I walked quietly to the fourth floor and listened for Raum Buker’s footsteps. I heard him go down the hall, followed by the sound of his door opening and closing. I wondered how he’d react to the sight of that symbol on his bathroom mirror. It was possible he’d put it there himself, but it didn’t seem likely given the tidiness of the rest of the space. I could possibly have hung around outside his room in the hope of hearing something – a phone call, maybe – but that wouldn’t have been the brightest of moves in a building full of criminals, some of whom certainly had something to hide, and a couple of whom might even have had a bone to pick with me. It’s a reflection on the nature of my profession, but I’ve probably made more enemies than friends in life, even if they’re the kind of enemies a man should be proud to have.
With lurking out of the question, I returned to the lobby. Bobby Wadlin was still watching his cowboy show.
“I see Raum Buker came back,” I said.
“That’s because he lives here,” said Wadlin. “A man ought to be able to return to his place of residence without hindrance, at least as long as he pays his rent.” He cocked an eyebrow at me. “You and him exchange pleasantries?”
“I decided to take a raincheck.”
“Maybe you’re not as dumb as they say.”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that, so I let it pass.
“Has anyone else been in that room today?” I said.
“Nope, just Buker, because you weren’t there either, right?”
“What about housekeeping?”
“It’s extra. Buker takes care of his own cleaning. He’s not alone, but at least he keeps his room tidy, which is more than can be said for some. We check all the units regularly, just in case they start to stink.”
“Any strangers come into the building today?”
Wadlin pointed to a sign on the Plexiglas shield. It read ‘No Visiters after 5pm.’
“It’s not five yet,” I said. “And ‘visitors’ is spelled wrong.”
“Well, I’m only paid to notice visitors after five. And if you want to open a classroom, start someplace else.”
“I’ll do that. I wouldn’t want to interfere with the running of your charm school.”
A security camera was trained on the lobby.
“Does that thing record?” I said.
“Wouldn’t be much use if it didn’t.”
“What about the one on the back door?”
I knew from previous visits that there was also a camera at the rear of the Braycott.
“That’s out of action. A rat ate through the wiring. Still works as a deterrent, though, because the tenants haven’t been told.”
“Any chance you could let me look over the recording from the one that does work?”
“None,” he said.
“You’re a piece of work, Bobby.”
“That’s what my momma always told me.”
“Probably just before she tried to drown you.”
Bobby Wadlin tossed a gummy bear into his mouth, turned up the volume on the TV, and nodded solemnly.
“She had,” he said, “very firm hands.”
The hour for which I’d anticipated billing Will Quinn had turned into the best part of half-a-day’s work, and didn’t look like ending anytime soon. Eventually Raum Buker would notice the symbol on his bathroom mirror, and my guess was that he’d know what it meant, otherwise the point of leaving it in the first place would be rendered moot. I wanted to be around to see what he did next.
As I sat in my car across from the Braycott Arms, waiting for Raum’s next move, I googled runes, paganism, occultism, and a whole lot of other search terms guaranteed to raise eyebrows if my phone was ever seized as evidence. It didn’t take too long to find what I was looking for. The symbol on the mirror was a pagan signifier for “bane,” or “deadly.” Either someone had an odd sense of humor, or Raum had just been given another reason to regret getting that tattoo on his arm, and maybe more besides.
Raum’s car was parked in the Braycott’s lot, which was probably the only place outside a junkyard currently offering space to vehicles that made the Chevy look good. If a fire was burning nearby, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a couple of the cars start spontaneously in order to throw themselves on it. Fifteen minutes went by, then thirty, without Raum emerging, but I didn’t want to re-enter the Braycott Arms if it could be avoided. Apart from having to deal with Bobby Wadlin again, it would mean confronting Raum in a confined space, possibly while he was rattled. I didn’t know if he had a gun, but the odds were in favor. Men like Raum operated on instinct, and their first response to a threat, however nebulous, was to secure a weapon. The law might have prohibited anyone convicted of a crime punishable by a year or more from owning a firearm, but criminals were notoriously shaky when it came to matters of law.
I made a call to Chris Attwood, who was now a regional correctional manager for the Maine Department of Corrections. Attwood was based in an office over on Park Avenue, not far from where I was currently parked. Our paths had first crossed after one of his charges, a man named Jerome Burnel, had come to me for help. Burnel should never have been put behind bars to begin with, and I’d succeeded in clearing his name, although the vindication came too late because by then he was already dead. The case had stayed with Attwood, though. It had stayed with me, too. My daughter, Sam, had almost died as a consequence of my involvement.
“Mr. Parker,” said Attwood, “as I live and breathe.”
“I didn’t think anyone still said ‘as I live and breathe,’” I replied, “not unless they smelled of lavender and Morgan Freeman was doing all the driving.”
“The DoC likes to maintain certain social niceties. We’re hoping it rubs off on our clients.”
“I have one former client in mind who might puncture that particular balloon of optimism: Raum Buker.”
“Rumor had it he was around,” said Attwood. “The tide goes out, but it always comes back in again. What’s he done?”
“Officially, nothing more than be an irritant, but that’s an existential state where Raum is concerned. Unofficially, I think he’s brought bad luck with him, and that can be contagious.”
“Buker wasn’t one of mine. Jo Niles was his P.O. She’s on workplace inspections today, but I can get her to give you a call.”
“If she could also save me some digging, I’m good for a bottle of wine.”
“I’ll ask. What do you need?”
“Raum just finished out a five-year manslaughter sentence in East Jersey State Prison,” I said. “That much is public record. I want to find out who his cellmates were – if he had any – and what friendships he might have struck up while inside.”
I waited while Attwood made some notes.
“You want to give me the angle?”
“Arcane. Raum has got himself an occult tattoo.”
A noticeable pause followed.
“With you,” said Attwood, “it figures.”
But he wasn’t dismissive, and he didn’t laugh. After what happened to Jerome Burnel, Attwood knew better.
And as I killed the call, Raum Buker came out of the Braycott Arms