The Sisters Strange
A web exclusive Charlie Parker novella
I called Will Quinn to ask if he’d had a chance to reach out to Dolors Strange. He told me that he’d driven over to see her immediately after our discussion at his home, and they’d spoken for two hours. The upshot was that Dolors seemed to feel about Will the same way he felt about her, and they’d decided to resume their romance.
“What about Raum?” I said.
“She’s done with him. He’s out of her life. She says that if her sister wants to keep seeing him, that’s her decision, but she’s advised Ambar against it.”
I thought that the next Thanksgiving with the Stranges would be quite the occasion, and I’d need to have my excuses prepared well in advance, just in case.
“Did you tell her you’d hired me?”
“I did. Was that a mistake?”
“Start as you mean to continue,” I said. “She’d have found out soon enough anyway. How did she take the news?”
“She told me I shouldn’t have done it, and that I didn’t need to go wasting my money on a private investigator. She advised me to sever my ties with you immediately. I said I couldn’t do that until I was sure she was safe. I suggested that if she was willing to answer any questions you might have, it would help set my mind at ease.”
I was pleased to see that Will had some backbone. It must have been all those years spent hauling lumber.
“I’m going to head over to see her now,” I said. “I just wanted to check that I wasn’t about to waste another trip. I’ve had my fill of being cold-shouldered by the Sisters Strange.”
“Would you like me to join you?”
I told him to stay right where he was. I might have been working for Will, but that didn’t mean I was going to share with him everything I learned. In fact, depending on how forthcoming Dolors Strange was with me, it might even be better for him if I didn’t, not unless he was keen on listening to the intricacies of her past relationship with Raum Buker. Even I wasn’t too sure that I wanted to hear that, and unlike Will, I wasn’t planning on sleeping with her.
It was also the case that every time I thought I might be getting a handle on the Sisters Strange, it came off in my fingers. I’d watched Raum attempt to kiss Ambar Strange and be rebuffed, but there was to their manner a hint of intimacy, and it was to Raum that she had turned when she was worried about the damage to her door. And while Dolors Strange now claimed to have excised Raum from her life in favor of Will Quinn, she, not her sister, was the one who had visited Raum down in East Jersey State Prison. Dolors might have explained to Will Quinn why that was, or she might have elected not to mention it for fear of casting a shadow over their reconciliation. Out of deference to their future prospects, it seemed wiser to ask her about it without Will being present.
“I have a question for you,” said Will, “since we’re sharing.”
“How come you always refer to Buker by his first name? If I didn’t know better, I’d almost have said you were intimates.”
It was a good question. I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it, but he was right.
“Maybe I feel sorry for him,” I said.
“Seriously? You must have better outlets for your sympathy. He’s no good to anyone. He’s bad through and through.”
But that wasn’t correct. I’d encountered real badness, and looked on profound human wickedness, and worse. Raum Buker undeniably possessed a streak of nastiness and spite, but not enough to damn him, or not in my eyes, although it might have been that I was growing sentimental in middle age. I’d always believed that he was intelligent enough to recognize the failure of a human being he’d become, and could yet redeem himself. But I didn’t like what I’d seen and heard at the Braycott Arms. That was a different Raum Buker.
In fact, it might no longer have been him at all.
I returned to Strange Brews. The same New Age music was playing, and the same deranged fantasy art was making the walls look embarrassed, but Dolors Strange was absent, and an older woman I didn’t recognize was tending the register. When I asked after the owner, she told me that Dolors had gone home sick, and wasn’t expected back for the rest of the day.
Dolors Strange lived in a single-story house off Broadway in South Portland. The city figured high on lists of the most desirable places to settle in Maine, but the compilers probably hadn’t been thinking of her particular stretch of Broadway when they made their notes. It wasn’t lousy, just dull and down-at-the-heels. Still, Dolors had a lot of space for one person – more than 2,000 square feet, according to the property records, although this included the garage. At $230,000, the valuation was at the lower end of the scale, but at least she owned a lot of house for her buck. It could have done with some TLC, because the woodwork was rotting in places. Will Quinn would certainly be able to oblige. Perhaps Dolors was just dating him for the discount.
In the days before the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, and reforms to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, it was relatively easy for private investigators to obtain credit reports. Now it required signed waivers from the subject and discussions of the definition of “permissible purposes.” Backdoor inquiries were still available, but they were expensive and carried with them the risk of the suspension of one’s license and the threat of jail time. When it came to antagonizing the law, I’d already spent my nine lives, and a couple of others on credit. Wherever possible, I preferred to tread the path of righteousness. If I was going to be hanged, I wanted it to be for something memorable.
I called Will Quinn for a second time while I sat outside Dolors Strange’s property.
“This is a delicate question,” I said, “but how is Dolors doing financially?”
“I don’t know all the details, but not great. She remortgaged her home after that mess in ’08 in order to keep Strange Brews running. She’s just about breaking even now, or so she says.”
“You don’t believe her?”
“In my experience, a business owner will tell you things are worse than they are or better than they are, but never how they are. I think Dolors is putting a brave face on a bad situation.”
“What about Ambar?”
“Dolors owes her money, too. After they reconciled, Ambar remortgaged her home, and put part of the cash into Strange Brews. She invested most of what was left.”
“According to Dolors, in Raum Buker.”
“And how did that work out?”
“You’d have to ask Ambar,” said Will, “but my guess is, not so good.”
I thanked him, locked my car, and knocked on Dolors Strange’s front door. I felt briefly guilty at the prospect of dragging her from her sick-bed, but I was here now, and had questions that needed to be answered. I let a minute or two go by before knocking a second time, with the same result.
I glanced around. Cars passed, but I saw no pedestrians, and nobody was paying me any attention. I left the front porch and walked around the exterior of the house. None of the drapes were closed, and I could see clearly into every room, the bathrooms excluded. Dolors Strange might have been in one of them, but I didn’t think so. Unoccupied houses have a particular feel to them, and you get to be familiar with it after a while. Finally, I took a look in the garage. It, too, was empty.
And I wondered just how sick Dolors Strange really was.
Ambar Strange’s cottage was also quiet when I got there, with no car in the driveway. I assumed she was at work, which was the main reason I was at her home and not at the dental practice. I parked in the driveway as though I was expected, just in case any of the neighbors were paying attention, and went straight to the back of the house.
The damage to the glass and screen of her door had not yet been repaired, but what I was seeing didn’t make any sense. One of the lower panes of glass was badly broken, the hole now covered with a piece of cardboard, and part of the screen was mangled, the way an animal might tear at a wire cage to escape confinement.
But Ambar Strange had told me that the glass was only scratched, not broken, and Raum Buker hadn’t seemed very concerned after taking a look for himself. Either Ambar had been lying to me, and Raum Buker was even more heedless of the problems of others than previously suspected, or Ambar had suffered a second attempted break-in – but by whom? I’d viewed the handiwork of some lousy burglars in my time, but this was off the scale.
I gently pried the cardboard from the glass before taking some pictures of the damage with my phone. By now the light was fading, and I was feeling tired and hungry. Had Angel and Louis been around, I’d have arranged to meet them somewhere for dinner, but they had returned to New York for one of Angel’s regular check-ups. I thought about catching a movie, but there was nothing I wanted to see. I missed Sam, and sometimes I missed Rachel, too. Mostly I liked my solitude, but there were moments when it became hard to differentiate it from loneliness.
I checked the images of the damage for clarity as I headed back to the car. I paused, and magnified one of the pictures. It might have been the dying sunlight on the glass when viewed with the naked eye, or the angle from which I’d taken the photo, but I was noticing something I’d missed. I returned to the door, knelt, and examined the glass more closely. The original scratches were still partially visible, and among them I thought I could pick out a semicircle, and what looked like a ‘V’ tilted on its side. Unless I was very mistaken, it resembled half the rune I’d found on Raum Buker’s mirror.
I saw, once again, Raum scratching at his tattoo. Now I thought I knew why.
In my car, I accessed online the property records for Ossipee, New Hampshire. Emmeline Towle, mother of Egon Towle, who had been saved from a prison beating by Raum Buker, still lived in the town. It was about a ninety-minute drive from Portland to Ossipee, but it would have to wait until tomorrow. Nobody liked a private investigator showing up once darkness fell. Come to think of it, they didn’t much care for it in daylight either.
I’d already looked into arrest records for Egon Towle himself. He’d been in trouble with the law on only one previous occasion, and that was down in Connecticut. Towle had been charged with larceny in the first degree for being in possession of a collection of rare coins, including one 1893 Morgan Silver Dollar worth about $250,000 at the time. He could have faced up to twenty years in prison, and a hefty fine, but the judge, bless her tender heart, had deemed him suitable for Accelerated Pre-Trial Rehabilitation on the grounds that Towle claimed to be unaware of the true value of the collection, which came to almost half-a-million dollars.
Towle had successfully completed the program, vowed never to sin again, and the charge was dismissed. Five years later, he started his term at East Jersey State Prison, again for a crime involving coins, which suggested that rehabilitation might not have entirely succeeded. He’d also graduated to robbery involving the use of a firearm, even if the gun hadn’t actually been in his possession.
I called Angel.
“What do you know about coin thieves?” I asked.
“They’re boring,” he said. “Seriously. They read boring magazines, they have boring conversations, and they keep company with the kind of men who make stamp collectors look like RuPaul. If you’re talking about very rare coins, they’re hard to fence, and are usually stolen to order, or at least with a buyer in mind. On the plus side, if you do have a buyer, then they’re easily transportable, and will earn someone a lot of money very fast for minimal risk. After that, the coins vanish into a private collection, although I’ve heard of some being used as collateral in drug deals, the same as stolen art. Why?”
“You ever hear of a guy called Egon Towle?”
“Could you ask around?”
“I can make some calls. How quickly do you want it?”
“By tomorrow. I’m planning to drive down to New Hampshire to visit his mother. Towle may be living with her.”
“So that would be, like, soon. Is this still the Raum Buker thing?”
“I think he and Raum might have been prison buddies.”
“Well,” said Angel, “there’s no accounting for taste.”
At the Cracker Barrel, the server named Olivia had grown used to the odd man who ordered the same breakfast every day. It wasn’t as though he was unusual in the consistency of his appetites. She’d had people in her section who’d been eating the same breakfast for years, sometimes even at the same table. A few of them wouldn’t consent to eat at any other; if they came in and found their spot occupied, they’d insist on waiting until it freed up, or go for a walk and come back later. For her favored customers, the ones who always remembered to tip more than the minimum, she would even agree to call when the table was ready, and secure it for them with a little ‘Reserved’ sign.
The stranger wasn’t quite so persnickety. He’d eat at any table, just so long as his eggs were well poached and his apples weren’t too hard. She didn’t know his name, because he always paid cash, but she’d come to think of him as Mr. Beige, because he only ever seemed to wear faded shades of yellow, oatmeal, and brown, from the top of his trilby hat to the tips of his scuffed shoes. He rarely spoke, except to say “Please” and “Thank you.”
“The usual?” she would ask.
“Please,” he would reply, and his voice seemed simultaneously to come from very near and also far away, as though it contained within itself its own echo. On the first morning she’d tried to make small talk with him, but he had only nodded and smiled before opening his newspaper. Now she just served him and collected her tip at the end, which was fine with her. He wasn’t insulting, didn’t try to come on to her, and tipped twenty percent without fail. There were worse customers to serve.
Initially, Olivia had liked the way he smelled – a couple of her regulars stank like they only washed at Christmas, whether they thought they needed to or not – but Mr. Beige wore a clean, old fashioned scent. Lately, though, it had begun to bother her, because it stayed with her even after she finished her shift, clinging to her skin and clothing. She’d taken to showering again when she got home, and changing her underclothes – because the smell permeated even them – but it didn’t do much good.
Now she wished the stranger would finish whatever business he had in town and go back to wherever he’d come from; that, or find another place to eat breakfast. She was considering putting salt on his apples, or asking that he be assigned to another server, but he had to hit the road sometime, right?
Perhaps most peculiar of all, even allowing for his scent, his reticence, and his appearance – hands that were both swollen yet small, and his eyes, god, those eyes – were the newspapers he read. They were all out of date, and not by days, or even weeks, but years. A day earlier, he’d been reading about 9/11, and the day before that the headline had concerned Jimmy Carter and some hostages back in 1979. The newspapers were yellowed yet crisp, as though they’d carefully been set aside unread back in the day, and had only recently been unearthed. It was like meeting a character from the Twilight Zone, someone who’d just woken from a long sleep and was trying to play catch-up on world affairs.
Olivia wished she could afford to take a few days off. Maybe he’d be gone when she returned, and that smell would be gone with him. But times were tough, and the tips mattered.
“You okay, hon? You look tired.”
It was Caitlin, one of the assistant managers. Caitlin had a daughter of about Olivia’s age, and that made her protective of Olivia too, although Caitlin was nice to pretty much everyone at the Cracker Barrel. Caitlin’s daughter lived with her father, for reasons to which Olivia was not privy. Caitlin seemed pretty cool, so it was hard to imagine what domestic circumstances might have caused her daughter to choose to be with her father instead, unless he was even cooler than her mom. Caitlin smiled with her mouth when her daughter came up in conversation, but her eyes stayed sad. Olivia hadn’t been working at the Cracker Barrel for long enough to feel right about asking why.
“I’m okay,” said Olivia. “I just haven’t been sleeping so good lately.”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“You must have a guilty conscience.”
For a moment, Olivia considered sharing her recurring dream with Caitlin. It had been coming to her for the last four or five nights, although it wasn’t the same each time, but was instead a variation on a theme. She would sit, conscious that someone was in her apartment, and see a shape occupying the chair by the window; or standing by her bookshelves, running a finger alone the spines of the novels; or silhouetted in her bathroom door, staring at her where she lay. She could never see the intruder’s face, because it was always in shadow, but she knew who it was, knew him by his trilby hat and his distinctive scent.
Except you didn’t smell stuff in your dreams, but it was always his cologne that finally woke her, and it would still be there when she opened her eyes, like a ghost in the room, before it slowly faded away.
“I think I have to go home,” said Olivia, suddenly. “I feel sick.”
“Hon, we’re kind of busy…”
“I know, I’m sorry,” said Olivia, untying her apron. “I have to go. I have to go before I puke.”
I have to be gone before he comes.
Floriana was late in attending to Mr. Kepler’s room. First there had been a problem with her car, and then two of the other maids – cousins who shared an apartment, and consorted, in Floriana’s view, with the wrong sort of men – had come down with something, which meant that she had spent the day running, and failing, to catch up with herself.
She knocked on Mr. Kepler’s door, and received no reply. Usually, she’d have given a second knock, just in case, but she was weary, and distracted, and the sense of unease that she felt whenever she approached Room 313 had mutated into a deeper dread. She just wanted to give his maldita habitación a cursory clean and have done with it.
She opened the door. The first thing she noticed was a pair of ivory dice on the table beside the closet. It was the first time she had discovered anything of a personal nature in the room, beyond a toothbrush, toothpaste, a disposable razor, and a travel-size can of shaving foam. Next to the dice was a small clock with exposed workings and multiple dials on its face. Its numerals were from no alphabet that Floriana recognized, and the arrangement of the dials was so complicated as to make telling the time impossible to her.
Floriana picked up the dice. They appeared very old. She also noticed, after a moment, that the numbers were odd. Instead of the opposite faces adding up to 7 – 1 and 6, 2 and 5, 3 and 4 – the distribution was random. On the other side of 6 was 2, opposite 5 was 4, and 1 was paired with 3. The second die was different again: 4 and 6, 1 and 5, 2 and 3. She had never seen anything like them before.
As she set them back down, she heard a sound from the bathroom. It was very slight, barely there at all, like an exhalation of gas from a valve.
“Hello?” she said, but softly, so softly, even as a voice in her head told her it would be better if she left the room now, closing the door gently behind her, forgetting the dice, forgetting the sound…
She glanced into the bathroom. Mr. Kepler was sitting naked before her, his eyes closed, seemingly asleep on the edge of the tub. His entire body, with the exception of his face, neck, and hands, was covered in tattoos, even down to his foreskin. They looked like symbols, or letters of an alphabet, except, once again, none that was familiar to her.
Floriana backed away. She did not speak, and Mr. Kepler disappeared from view. She made it to the door, still lodged open with a wooden stop. She stepped into the hall and removed the stop, steadying the door with one hand and holding the handle down with the other so it would make no sound when it closed. Only when the door had locked behind her did she release a breath.
And only then did Kepler open his eyes.
I spent the morning at the Maine District Court, waiting to testify in an insurance case that was eventually settled on the courtroom steps. At least I had a book to read, and they were billable hours. There’s something pleasant about being paid to read.
I grabbed a coffee at Arabica, and read the parts of the New York Times that weren’t depressing. I was just finishing up when Angel called.
“You were asking about Egon Towle,” he said.
“Am I going to be sorry?”
“How about if I start by telling you that they call him ‘Weird Egon?’”
“You know,” I said, “I’m sorry already.”
Egon Towle didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in the Devil. He was fascinated by transcendentalism, theosophy, spiritualism, hermeticism, the Kabbalah, Neo-Paganism, and witchcraft. He’d briefly worked in the library at East Jersey State Prison before it was discovered that he had somehow managed to have five occult volumes – including a modern edition of the eighteenth-century Grimorium Verum, The Book of Ceremonial Magic by Arthur Waites, and a treatise on occult warfare – smuggled into the prison as part of a charitable donation from the collection of a defunct home for elderly spinsters. He also claimed to have infiltrated the Bilderberg Group and the outer margins of the British Royal Family, and to have personally forged President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Egon Towle wasn’t just out where the buses don’t run, he was out where no bus was ever likely to run, not unless Egon hijacked it.
“So he’s crazy?” I said.
“Oh, he’s out of his mind,” said Angel. “But he’s also a very, very good thief.