The Sisters Strange
A web exclusive Charlie Parker novella
In a motel room by the Maine Mall, a figure sat before a screenshot of Raum Buker at the Braycott Arms. In some ways, the neatness of his lodgings mirrored Buker’s own, although they showed even fewer signs of human occupancy, their single guest excepted, and some might well have disputed the use of the term “human” in connection with him. The bed was made, the bathroom had barely been used, the closet was empty, and an ancient leather bag, of the kind once favored by nineteenth-century medical practitioners with a drinking problem, contained all his traveling needs. He took the bag with him when he availed of housekeeping, which he did each day, setting it by his feet as he ate poached eggs and fried apples at the Cracker Barrel while waiting for his room to be cleaned.
Every morning he would toss the sheets and muss the pillows on the bed, even if it had not been slept in. He would dampen the towels and throw them in the tub, just to give the impression of use. If he rested at all, he did so during the day, and then only for an hour or two. Like certain mammals, he was primarily nocturnal. He was also in constant pain, and struggled particularly with maintaining a horizontal position for any extended period of time. He self-medicated with over-the-counter remedies – and where necessary, with under-the-counter narcotics, too.
Floriana, the maid responsible for servicing his room, noticed a distinctive but not unpleasant odor about it, which she tended to associate with her great-grandfather, her bisabuelo Adelardo, who had spent the entire span of his years in a grand mansion located in the Miguel Aleman neighborhood of Mérida. As he grew older and poorer, Adelardo had been forced to rent out more and more rooms in the mansion, until finally he was reduced to living in the attic, a tenant in what had once been his own home. Still, every morning Adelardo would shine his shoes, put on a shirt and tie, and promenade for hours around the Plaza de la Independencia before imbibing a single glass of Tepeztate at El Cardenal. He might have been reduced to the status of a near pauper, but that was no reason to let standards slip.
On Sundays, Adelardo would apply his special scent, the one he poured only sparingly from an unmarked bottle, before hearing Mass at the cathedral. The cologne, the source of which remained a mystery to Adelardo’s family, had a base of civet and rosewater, and it was a version of this same smell that Floriana discerned in room 313. It caused her to feel an instinctive deference toward its occupant, Mr. Kepler, a regard only enhanced by the five dollars he left for her each morning, despite the fact that his room took barely any time at all to freshen, and frequently appeared to be at least as unblemished as she had left it the day before, if not more so. (Floriana had worked as a housekeeper for three decades, and never failed to be shocked by the many ways in which seemingly ordinary men and women were capable of defiling a motel room.)
It did not matter to Floriana that Mr. Kepler looked odd, or that she had never heard him speak. Neither was she concerned that, when seen up close, his clothing was dirtier and more worn than it first appeared, for this had also been true of her bisabuelo. If they passed each other in the hallway, Mr. Kepler would silently raise his hat and smile, a curiously old-fashioned gesture in a world that increasingly viewed kindness and civility as signs of weakness, even as his lips parted to reveal teeth too large for his mouth, the enamel striated with yellow.
Yet for all Mr. Kepler’s many apparent, even undeniable, good qualities, Floriana did her best to avoid crossing his path, and wouldn’t look him in the eye when she did, because she couldn’t help but flinch. Neither did she spend more time in his room than was absolutely necessary. She made sure to wear rubber gloves while moving through its spaces, but still washed her hands with disinfectant when done.
Her sleep patterns had become disturbed. Floriana worked two jobs – she stocked shelves at Shaw’s four evenings a week and all day Saturday – so exhaustion usually ensured immediate oblivion, but for the past four nights she had not slept well. She would wake in darkness, and feel the urge to check the latches on the door and windows of the apartment she shared with her husband and two adult children. She tried to fight it, but the longer she waited, the more alert and troubled she became. So she would get up as quietly as she could, make her rounds, and return to bed, only to wake a couple of hours later in time for the routine to commence again.
Four nights without proper sleep.
Four mornings spent cleaning Mr. Kepler’s room.
And sometimes, as she tested the locks, Floriana thought she could pick up the faintest hint of rosewater and civet, and she wondered if this was how madness smelled.
By the Braycott Arms, Raum Buker stopped when I called his name. He didn’t look surprised to see me. Perhaps Bobby Wadlin had decided to hedge his bets by letting Raum know that I’d been inquiring after him, and more, while stopping short of admitting his role in supplying a key to the room. Then again, the Sisters Strange might also have been in touch to let Raum know of my visits to them. If just one of them had contacted him, my money was on Ambar.
“What do you want?” said Raum.
He peered over my shoulder as though expecting to see the Fulci brothers approaching rapidly in a cloud of dust, like rhinos rampaging across the Serengeti. Only when he was convinced that the coast was clear did he return his gaze to me. Much of the cockiness he’d displayed at the Great Lost Bear was gone, but it was not fear alone – because fear was present – that had replaced it. There was an eerie calm to him, the kind that takes over certain individuals when the worst has come.
“Why were you bothering Ambar?” he said.
So there it was. I made a mental note to play the lottery that week.
“Did she say I was bothering her?”
“She said you’d been around. In your case, that amounts to the same thing.”
Which was, I had to admit, a good line.
“Some people are worried for the Sisters Strange,” I said.
“Because of me?”
“Because of you.”
“They have no right to be,” said Raum. “I’ve never hurt a woman.”
It wasn’t the first time a man had said those words to me, often with the same odd tone of pride, even self-satisfaction. What I took from it was that they’d considered striking a woman, but had ultimately resisted the temptation, which made them great guys.
“That may be true,” I said, “but you’ve done some hurting nonetheless. That carpenter you tore up with a planer doesn’t walk so good anymore, and five years in East Jersey says you put a man in the ground.”
“Well, you’d know all about bodies. You ought to have shares in a cemetery.”
“We can keep scoring points off each other,” I said, “or we can have a conversation.”
He glanced at his watch.
“So talk,” he said. “I can listen for now, if it means never having to listen to you again. But make it fast.”
“Tell me about the pentacle tattoo.”
Whatever he’d expected me to say, that wasn’t it.
“What about it?”
“Where did you get it, and why?”
“I got lots of tattoos.”
“Not like that one.”
Unconsciously, he scratched at it through his shirt. He caught himself, and stopped, but not before the wound opened again and began to stain the cotton.
“I saw it in a book,” he said. “I thought it looked interesting, different. I’m sorry for it now.”
“That I can believe. What are you frightened of, Raum?”
“Not you and your buddies, that’s for sure,” he said, and the old Raum, the idiot Raum, raised his head for a moment before sinking into silence. But the new Raum’s heart wasn’t in it, and evinced only embarrassment at the bravado of his alter ego.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t want any more trouble with you or the Fulcis. I shouldn’t have gone to the Bear that night, and maybe I shouldn’t even have come back to Portland, but I’m here now, and I have business to conclude.”
“None of yours, but once I’m done, you won’t see me again. I’ll stay out of the way of Dolors and Ambar as best I can. You and me, we got no quarrel – not unless you want to make one.”
And then the strangest thing happened. The only way I can describe it is that Raum Buker’s face contorted into a smile, but the smile wasn’t his; and a presence peered from behind his eyes that had no right to be in his head, like an intruder staring out from the windows of a familiar house.
“Is that what you want, Mr. Parker?” said Raum, and his voice held a dissonant countermelody, like plainsong in a ragged key.
I pointed at his left hand, from which redness was dripping.
“You’re bleeding,” I said. “You should get that looked at.”
And I left him to his pain.
That evening, I dropped by Will Quinn’s home to update him on what we in the investigative trade like to term “progress,” usually when we’re billing someone and haven’t made a great deal of it. I didn’t hold much back, because there wasn’t a lot worth keeping back, and I had no obligations to anyone involved but Will. The only detail I kept to myself, at least for the present, was that odd change to Raum Buker’s voice and expression at the end of my conversation with him. I didn’t want Will to get the impression that I jumped at shadows, although I could have given him chapter and verse on why I’d had good cause to do so in the past.
“You think that sign on the mirror was a warning?” he asked.
We were sitting in his kitchen. He’d done all the joinery and cabinetwork in the house himself, and it was a hymn to exposed wood. He was a fine craftsman, but the place could have done with a few rugs and a little more color to liven it up. It was like spending time in a casket without the plush.
“I think it’s more that someone wanted Raum to know his room had been searched,” I said.
“To light a fire under him. Either whoever searched it didn’t find what they were looking for, and thought a fright might spur him into doing something that would reveal its whereabouts, or it could be that they were reminding him of an obligation. I’ll admit it’s theatrical, but it was also effective. Raum didn’t look happy when we parted, and it wasn’t just because of me.”
“You didn’t follow him to see where he went?”
TV shows and movies have made everyone an armchair expert on forensics and the mechanisms of detection. If they applied the same principle to medical dramas, half the population would be offering helpful advice to surgeons while they operated, or cutting out the middleman and performing their own amputations at home.
“That approach might have been a little obvious,” I said, “even for me. And so far, Raum Buker hasn’t done anything wrong, other than interfere with your love life.”
Will grew wistful, then morose, as though I’d just reminded him of what he was missing now that he was being forced to keep his distance from Dolors Strange.
“Do you think Buker meant it when he told you he was done with Dolors and her sister?” said Will.
That wasn’t exactly what Raum had intimated, but the nuances were largely irrelevant, given the source.
“Going on past experience,” I said, “Raum might have been sincere at that moment, because he was scared and wanted me out of his face, but if circumstances change, or he gets in trouble, he’ll be back – if not to Dolors, then to Ambar. I might be wrong, but Ambar strikes me as more vulnerable than her sister, and her feelings toward Raum may be more ambivalent.”
Will examined his hands. They were those of a workingman, pitted and scarred. He probably couldn’t recall a day that hadn’t ended without fresh cuts to his skin. He’d been alone for a long time, and might even have given up on ever meeting someone until Dolors Strange came into his life. Now he’d invested his future in her, but it was being threatened by her past.
“What would you do,” he said at last, “if I were you?”
It wasn’t how the question was usually posed – “if you were me” was more typical – but I understood the reason. Will was asking what I, as a private investigator, would do if I found myself in love with a woman like Dolors Strange, and at odds with a man like Raum Buker as a consequence.
“I’d be honest with Dolors,” I said. “I’d tell her how I felt, and that I wasn’t about to stand by and leave her alone to deal with whatever was coming down the track – because, Will, my sense is that something is coming. You’ll just have to trust me on that. Depending on how bad it is, and how deeply Raum has screwed up, it may just buffet the Sisters Strange, or it could hit them with force, but they’re in its path because of their history with him.”
“And then?” he said.
“I’d try to find out exactly what Raum has done,” I said. “I’d go looking for the source of that tattoo.”
He worked through the implications. He was a practical man.
“I can take care of some of that, but not all,” he said. “Can I hire you to do the rest?”
I took in his face, his scars, and his too-male house. I took in his past, his present, and a series of futures, in only one of which was sorrow excised.
“You already have,” I said.
The next morning I returned to the Braycott Arms. Bobby Wadlin was still behind his Plexiglas shield, and still watching cowboy pictures. In all the times I’d been at the Braycott, I’d never caught Wadlin viewing any film of quality. He gave the impression of deliberately eschewing features that displayed even minimal artistry in favor of bad B-movies and worse TV shows. On one occasion, I’d even found him watching Dusty’s Trail, which was Gilligan’s Island for the mentally impaired. Admittedly, Wadlin hadn’t been laughing, but that was like saying no one smiled at Schindler’s List.
“Buker’s not here,” said Wadlin. “Hasn’t been in since yesterday.”
“Has anyone else been asking after him?”
“Only you. And I can’t give you that key again. I’ll be fired.”
“Bobby, if you get fired, you can just rehire yourself. But if I were you, I’d have fired myself a long time ago.”
His eyes remained fixed on the screen, and on dead men made eternal.
“Insulting me won’t change anything. Still can’t let you have that key.”
“When’s his rent due?”
“He pays by the week, so he owes from tomorrow.”
I placed my card in the hatch.
“Call me when he gets back. Same if he doesn’t.”
“I ain’t calling you.”
I decided playtime was over for today.
Now he looked. He reached out a hand and drew in the card, like a trapdoor spider reluctantly settling for poor prey.
“Nobody likes you,” he said, “not even me. And I like everybody.”
I processed my hurt as I left. It proved easier than expected. By the time I hit fresh air, it was gone.
Jo Niles, the probation officer who had worked with Raum Buker, was at her desk when I dropped by the Department of Corrections office on Park Avenue. She was in her early thirties at most, and might have scraped five feet in heels. Her dark hair was cut very short, her ears ended in the slightest of points, and she wore glasses with wide blue frames. The eyewear apart, she looked as though she could have stepped from a painting in Strange Brews, possibly the big canvas with the naked female elf and the dragon. (I was considering buying that one for Angel and Louis, as long as I could deliver it in person and be there when they unwrapped it. It was absurdly expensive – it would have been absurdly expensive at ten bucks – but what price happiness?)
“So you’re Charlie Parker,” she said, as I took a seat opposite her. “I thought you’d be taller.”
“I get that a lot,” I said, “along with ‘I thought you’d be dead.’”
“We have to learn to live with wishful thinkers.” She opened a notepad on her desk. “Chris Attwood told me you were interested in Raum Buker. Have you been hired to investigate him?”
“The current partner of one of his ex-girlfriends.”
“Has Buker harmed her in some way?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Has he harmed someone else?”
“I’d say yes, but only on the basis of probability.”
“But you have no evidence that he’s committed a crime?”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“That,” I said, “is what I’m trying to find out.”
Niles pursed her lips and glared at me through her lenses. If I ever spent time on probation or parole, I decided I didn’t want her to be the one holding my chain. After only a few minutes in her presence, I was already examining my conscience and finding it wanting.
“Are you being deliberately evasive?” she said. “Because I’ve heard that said about you.”
“It’s a moral flaw,” I admitted. “It may even be a genetic one. On this occasion, though, I’m being straight. I’m as in the dark as anyone about why Raum Buker has come back to Portland. All I can tell you is that I think he’s scared of someone, or something. If I can establish the nature of the threat, I can determine how, or if, it impacts on my client’s interests.”
Niles might still have suspected me of lying, either in whole or in part, but her questions were mostly for show. Attwood had asked her to help me, and in addition to being her superior, he was also known to be a good guy. She’d have been foolish not to oblige, but she still gave a deep sigh and creased her brow, just to let me know how much the effort was costing her.
“Raum Buker maxed out in New Jersey,” she said, “so post-release supervision doesn’t apply. It wasn’t as if I could just call his P.O. and ask for this information.” The crease in her brow deepened. “I had to get in touch with an ex-girlfriend for it, and I really didn’t want to do that.”
I produced a bottle of Moët from my bag and placed it on her desk. It had cost me $55 at the liquor outlet in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, because I wasn’t a chump; like half the state of Maine, I bought anything more expensive than box wine over the border. I’d been saving the champagne for one of those special occasions when only a striking inducement would suffice. To be fair to Niles, it did cause her brow to unfurrow.
“Classy,” she said. “I’ve also heard that said about you, if grudgingly.”
“Just don’t tell Attwood. I’d feel odd giving him champagne, like I’d have to produce a corsage as well.”
“It can be our secret. I wouldn’t want to cause any confusion to your sexuality.” She put the bottle in a drawer, and returned to her notes. “Buker shared a cell for the first three years, with two different cellmates, but he was in a single in advanced segregation for the rest of his sentence.”
“He intervened in a fight, and saved a guard from getting his skull fractured. According to my contact, Buker was trying to protect another inmate, and blocked a couple of hits to the guard along the way. Buker and the other inmate were placed in advanced seg in the aftermath, just as a precaution.”
“Any lingering grudges?”
“Nothing personal,” said Niles, “or not beyond the usual, because it’s always open season on a guard.”
“What about the second inmate involved?”
“Egon Towle, released one month before Raum Buker. Sixty-three months under the Graves Act. He was convicted as an accomplice in the robbery of a coin dealership in Paterson, during which a firearm was produced but not discharged. Mandatory minimum of forty-two months, plus fifty percent for a prior, along with a parole disqualifier.”
“So Towle maxed out as well?”
“Was Towle originally one of Raum Buker’s cellmates?”
“Actually, it was Buker’s cellmate who attacked Towle. His name was Perry Gudex, from Kentucky. Manslaughter, ten years. He was also a religious fanatic, borderline insane.”
“Any idea what might have caused the beef between them?”
“Religion, of all things. Gudex was a Southern Baptist, and Towle – well, Towle was about as far from a Baptist as a man can get, Southern or otherwise. He was aggressively atheistic and liked getting under Gudex’s skin, until Gudex snapped.”
“Where’s Gudex now?”
“Still behind bars. He’s not due for release for another five years.”
“I don’t know. Like I said, he wasn’t under post-release supervision. He could go where he pleased, but my contact says Towle’s mother lives down in Ossipee, New Hampshire, and that was the address he gave when he was arrested in New Jersey.”
“What about Buker’s other cellmate?”
“Clu Angard. Died of an overdose shortly after release.”
I finished writing. I liked to keep notes. I rarely had to consult them, but writing helped cement details in my memory.
“There is one more thing,” said Niles. “I asked for a list of Raum Buker’s permitted visitors, just in case it might be of help.”
“There was only one name on the list,” said Niles. “Dolors Strange.