The Sisters Strange
A web exclusive Charlie Parker novella
By noon, Raum Buker had not yet returned to the Braycott Arms, and was twenty-four hours overdue on his rent. Yet Bobby Wadlin, who was not prone to demonstrations of kindness, did not immediately order the room to be cleaned and emptied. It was not that as Wadlin’s middle grew softer, so too did his heart, for the organ in question was not only as hard as its surrounding arteries, but it had also atrophied to the size of a nut. No, it was more the case that the Raum Buker currently residing at the Braycott Arms was not the same man Wadlin recalled from memory and rumor, and caution needed to be exercised.
Wadlin had encountered plenty of disturbed men and women over the years, which was why he rarely emerged from behind his Plexiglas screen, not if it could be avoided. Still, Plexiglas only offered so much protection, and even Wadlin was occasionally obliged to venture onto the city’s streets. This was why it was important for him to maintain the fiction that he was merely an employee of the Braycott’s absentee owners, and not a principal shareholder in the operation. Similarly, he avoided antagonizing the guests unnecessarily, and would call the cops only as a last resort. The second-last resort was a low-level bruiser named Tony Motti, who had once gone all of two rounds with Joey Gamache, the only Maine boxer ever to win a world boxing title. Joey had played around with Tony for a while before flooring him with a punch that Tony probably still felt when the weather turned cold. Now Tony worked security at the kind of bars that sane people avoided on the grounds that they required someone like Tony Motti to maintain a semblance of order, and occasionally helped landlords of Bobby Wadlin’s stripe to deal with recalcitrant tenants.
Raum Buker was not quite a problem tenant, and Wadlin sincerely hoped he wouldn’t become one, because Raum was showing signs of cracking up. One of the other tenants had complained that Raum was keeping him awake at night by shouting in his sleep. He had also mentioned to Wadlin that he thought Raum might be entertaining visitors after hours, because he was sure he’d heard someone else in there. Yet when Wadlin had gone to check, having been alerted by the neighbor to another such conversation, he’d found Raum alone in the room.
And that wasn’t all. That night, up in Raum’s unit, Bobby Wadlin had smelled something burning.
“You lighting fires up here?” he asked, once he’d confirmed that the room was empty. “Or smoking, because you know the rules.”
“I don’t smell anything,” said Raum, “and I don’t smoke. I was asleep when you knocked.”
He hadn’t looked sleepy to Wadlin, and he didn’t appear bothered by the intrusion, only amused. But that smell – damn, it was like someone grilling bad bacon. If he hadn’t known better, Wadlin might even have said it was coming from the man standing before him.
So now Bobby Wadlin just wanted Raum Buker gone. Another deadbeat would be along to replace him soon enough, and it wasn’t as though the income from one unit was the difference between eating and not eating. Wadlin and his relatives could take the hit. But he didn’t want any trouble with Raum, which was why he waited a few hours before dispatching a maid to the room with instructions to gather up any personal possessions and put them in storage. If Raum came back and tried to pay in advance for another week, or even another day, Wadlin would tell him that the unit had already been rented to a new guest. Wadlin was done with Raum Buker.
Because Raum Buker was giving him the creeps.
The drive down to New Hampshire was slow but uneventful, helped by the fact that I stayed at about seventy-five and slowed any time I saw a sports car that wasn’t tearing up the road, the Maine State Police liking nothing better than to lurk in Mustangs to trap the unwary.
I’d never been to Ossipee before. It appeared to be a conglomeration of villages sharing that name, located around Center Ossipee, “Home of the First Snowmobile,” because somewhere had to be. Emmeline Towle lived on Moultonville Road, close to Lord’s Funeral Home. Her home stood further back than its neighbors, and was sheltered by evergreens. One car was parked outside the garage, a boxy blue Oldsmobile Cutlass from the 1980s, bearing a faded election sticker for a politician of whom I’d never heard – which, in the current climate, was almost certainly the best kind.
I parked behind the Oldsmobile. As I got out, the front door of the house opened and a woman in her early fifties stepped onto the porch. Her hair was gray and unwashed, and she wore a Howdy Doody apron that came down to her knees. Her right hand was buried in one of its pockets. I was pretty certain that the hand was holding a gun. Get shot often enough and you become adept at spotting the signs, if only as a belated survival strategy. I decided to stay by my car in the hope that the hand would likewise remain in that apron pocket.
“What do you want here?” she said.
“I was looking for Emmeline Towle.”
“You’re about a month too late.”
“Why is that?”
“Because we buried her over at Chickville Cemetery.”
I sometimes think life would be a lot simpler if we could press “reset” on any preceding ten seconds. In the absence of that facility, I’d have to keep working on my diplomatic skills, or start certain conversations by making sure the person I was inquiring after didn’t happen to be dead.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“You can go take her flowers, if you like.”
“I didn’t know her that well. I didn’t know her at all.”
“Then you got nothing to be sorry for.”
“Except your loss.”
She untightened a little – just enough to nod.
“You still haven’t told me who you are, or what you wanted with my mother.”
“Actually,” I said, “I was hoping to talk with her about her son, Egon. My name is Charlie Parker. I’m a private investigator. It concerns a case I’m working on.”
At the mention of Egon, the shutters came down again, and her right hand altered its grip on whatever was in her apron pocket.
“Egon’s not here. And before you ask, I don’t know where he is, so you can be on your way.”
“I’m not trying to cause any trouble for you,” I said. “Or him, not if I can help it.”
“What other reason would a private investigator have for being on my property other than to cause trouble for someone?”
Which was a fair observation, maybe even an astute one.
The sun was going down behind the trees, and I could already feel the evening chill creeping into the air. I’d driven for nearly two hours in roadwork traffic to the Home of the First Snowmobile, and I didn’t even like snowmobiling. Neither did I particularly like Raum Buker, nor the Sisters Strange, and whatever Will Quinn was paying me wasn’t enough to compensate for the toll events were taking on my natural ebullience.
So I just decided to be honest.
“I think two women may be in danger because of their association with a man named Raum Buker,” I said. “Your brother served time with him in East Jersey State Prison. They may even have grown close. Raum is congenitally dishonest, and your brother is a convicted thief. If they cooked up something between them for after their release, I’d like to know what it is. If they were in it together, they’ve drawn someone down on them by what they did, and these women could be caught in the crossfire.”
Egon Towle’s sister drew her right hand from her apron, and I instinctively backed up a step, as though that might have helped in the event of a bullet being fired. She saw the expression on my face, and lifted her hand to display the bulky vaporizer. I breathed out.
“Did you think it was a gun?” she said.
“No offense meant.”
“None taken. Anyway, it’d be hypocritical of me, seeing as how I left the gun on the console table inside the door. You got some ID?”
I walked to the porch and showed her my license.
“It looks real,” she said.
“I hope so. It took me hours to make.”
She took a puff on the vaporizer, and I thought I caught the hint of a smile.
“I suppose you’d better come in,” she said. “Maybe I can help you after all.”
Egon Towle’s sister was named Eleanor, because, she said, her family had a preference for names beginning with the letter “e.” There appeared to be no particular reason for this beyond eccentricity, which, as she noted, also began with an “e.”
Eleanor apologized for the condition of her home as she led me to the kitchen, although it struck me as perfectly neat and clean, if resolutely old-fashioned, right down to that Howdy Doody apron she was wearing. She offered me coffee, and I make a point of never refusing coffee or tea in these situations, because it helps to establish some small bond of intimacy and informality. Declining makes an interview subject less likely to open up, although one has to be careful with alcohol. Then again, Eleanor Towle could have suggested a cup of arsenic and I’d have taken her up on the offer. Just because you accept doesn’t mean you have to drink. There’s a life lesson somewhere in that, but damned if I can say what it is.
Only when the coffee was in front of me did I ask why she had a gun on her console table.
“Why does any woman keep a gun?” she said. “For protection.”
“From anyone in particular?”
“Maybe.” She gave me the hard eye. “How much do you know about my brother?”
“Not a lot, beyond the fact that he served time for attempted robbery, and narrowly avoided another term for possession of stolen goods. He also has some odd taste in reading material, and may, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, be slightly unbalanced.”
“You sure you haven’t met him?” said Eleanor. “Because that’s a pretty accurate summation of his character.”
“Guaranteed. Are you frightened of him?”
“Of Egon?” She laughed. “My brother wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Perhaps not, but he keeps company with men who would – and have.”
She stopped laughing, which was a shame. Eleanor Towle was a plain-looking woman, and gave the impression that the world weighed heavily on her shoulders, but she had a nice smile.
“Egon’s a planner,” she said, “but he’s not strong, and he’s certainly not intimidating. When he gets caught, it’s usually because he’s decided to work with someone else. He never was much good at choosing friends. That’s probably why he ended up with none.”
“I was told he had a reputation as an accomplished thief.”
“Egon – ” she began, and stopped. “How do I know you’re not just going to go to the police with all this?”
“I’m not a law enforcement official,” I said. “I’m under no legal obligation to report details of a crime, either planned or committed, unless directly asked about it in the process of a criminal investigation. A prosecutor or the police might debate that, but any half-decent lawyer would shoot them down. That aside, I have certain conditions I apply: if it concerns an act of violence that can be stopped, or the abuse of a woman or child, historical or ongoing, I have a moral duty to act on that information – and a legal one, too, depending on the interpretation of the law, but the moral obligation supersedes all.”
She played with her coffee cup, but didn’t drink from it. I waited. Sometimes – not often, but enough to make a statistical difference – you come across a person who wants to talk, and has just been waiting to be asked the right question. Often they’re scared or angry, so dealing with them is a delicate business. I’ve found silence helps, but that requires patience. People are uncomfortable with silence, and generally seek to fill it. Unburdening has a lot in common with downhill skiing: once you start, it’s very hard to stop.
“I don’t know why I made coffee,” she said. “I didn’t want any.”
“Neither did I.”
That smile shyly revealed itself again.
“Well,” she said, “aren’t you wicked sharp? If I drank liquor, I’d suggest we move on to that instead, but I never had a taste for it, and I got nothing stronger than soda in the house. I guess you must think I’m real dull, living here in my spinster abode with a beater in the drive and not even a light beer in the refrigerator.”
“I don’t think that at all,” I said, and I didn’t. Eleanor Towle was smart and self-aware, but talking with her in these tidy but strangely gloomy surroundings, with my knowledge of her recently buried mother and her jailbird brother, it was possible to construct a narrative of her life that contained more than its share of disappointment and frustration. The choices she’d made – if she’d ever been given any real choices at all – had led her to this place, and it wasn’t a happy one. Even had she been in a position to pursue better alternatives, her brother’s actions would have leveled the scales, or tipped them against her. Life isn’t fair, but it’s harder on some than others, and women, people of color, and the poor will always be among the most encumbered and restricted. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar, and anyone who facilitates that injustice is a cheat. Here endeth the lesson.
Eleanor Towle, the waters rising darkly around her, stretched out a hand for help.
“Egon took something from the wrong man,” she said, “and now he wants it back.”
Dave Evans was preparing to head home from the Bear when Paulie Fulci approached. Dave’s late failure to exclude Raum Buker from the premises had been forgiven by the Fulci brothers, if not entirely forgotten, helped by the fact that Raum hadn’t returned to the bar since his altercation with them. The Fulcis were aware that he was holed up at the Braycott Arms, but sometimes a man is worth hitting, yet not worth the effort of traveling any distance to hit.
“The guy in the corner,” said Paulie, “over by the specials board, I think there’s something wrong with him.”
“Wrong, how?” said Dave.
Any number of accusations could have been leveled at the Fulci brothers – and many had been, not least in courts of law – but being poor judges of character was not among them. Their opinions might have been instinctive, and frequently expressed in the simplest of terms, but they were very rarely wrong. It was a consequence of their comparatively childlike perspective on the world. The Fulcis viewed behavior in terms of good or bad, kind or unkind, generous or mean, and distrusted any morality that embraced compromise.
And, Dave thought, who was to say they were wrong? Admittedly, their own past behavior was less than blameless, and even some of their more recent exploits gave cause for concern, but an undeniable sense of righteousness and honesty underpinned everything they did, which was more than could be said for a lot of folk Dave knew. The Fulcis’ principal flaw was that they were easily led. Well, that and their hair-trigger tempers. And their willingness to use violence as a second resort, or sometimes even a first. Actually, now that Dave came to consider it, the Fulcis had a great many flaws.
And so, although home was calling, Dave listened to Paulie, and used a check on the evening’s specials as an excuse to take a look at the guy in question. He was sitting directly under the board, and dressed in various shades of tan, cream, and brown from his trilby hat to his two-tone leather shoes, like an image in a sepia photograph come to life. He was wearing a brown tweed jacket over a tan vest, a yellow shirt with a yellow-and-beige tie, and cream moleskin trousers. A single red feather poked from his hatband, like a Native American scout imperfectly concealed amid arid slopes.
But seen from up close, the stains on his pants and shirt became visible, along with the fraying of his jacket cuffs, the missing middle button on his vest – his belly straining against the cotton shirt beneath, revealing dark, coarse hairs – and the scuffing on his unpolished shoes. His right hand, which was splayed on the table, looked swollen, and the fingernails were diseased, the ridges raised, the centers sufficiently concave each to have contained, without spilling, a single drop of water. His chin was sunk on his chest, the brim of the hat concealing his face. He was breathing so regularly and deeply that Dave thought he might even be asleep, and he gave off a faint scent of rosewater and musk. An empty yellow-and-black plastic ampule stood beside a glass of what resembled brandy, although when Dave asked around later, no one could remember having served him, and the glass was not from the Bear.
Then he raised his head and opened his eyes, and Dave was reminded of hinged shells unclasping to reveal the bivalves within, or single embryos at the heart of frogspawn, because the globes were milky, the irises gray, the widening pupils dark and imperfect in their circularity, as if those same embryos had been coaxed into unfolding by the sudden influx of light. His hand shifted position on the table, revealing a pair of ivory dice that matched the color of his skin. When he spoke, his voice was so soft that Dave had to lean closer to hear it.
“You play dice?”
The story Eleanor Towle shared with me went like this:
Egon, her brother, was not a typical thief, but a kind of magpie, lured by shiny things, and coins in particular. Where this fascination had originated, she could not say. Their father, who had died when she and Egon were in their early teens, never had more than a couple of spare quarters to rub together, and the only things her mother collected were thrift store knick-knacks and the associated dust. Yet from an early age Egon had immersed himself in numismatics, driving Miss Dinah, the librarian at the public library in Center Ossipee, near crazy with requests for books that would have been regarded as obscure at the New York Public Library, let alone her little athenaeum. Still, she had done her best for him, because she liked to encourage reading in the young. It was probably for the best that she died before it became apparent that Egon’s childhood hobby had developed into an adult criminal obsession.
Only the most gullible of observers would have read Egon Towle’s criminal record and concluded that he had indulged just twice in acts of larceny. His was an ongoing, persistent endeavor, but one that frequently required long months of research and planning. He haunted coin shows, lurked on forums and chatrooms, and learned the identities of collectors who were careless about their security, as well as those less morally scrupulous than the norm.
But for all his efforts, Egon rarely ended up with very much money of his own. The stock of rare coins of real value was small, and even when he managed to secure a prize, he was often forced to sell it for much less than its actual worth because of the manner of its acquisition. His biggest score had been the 1893 Morgan Silver Dollar that brought him to the attention of the law in Connecticut, and he had been apprehended before he could move the coin on. Also, Egon Towle was something of a collector himself, and would use any profits to obtain items for his own hoard – but always legally, Egon being too clever to hold onto stolen goods for too long.
During that time, he continued to live with his mother and sister, with the exception of his spell of incarceration in New Jersey. He dated neither women nor men, and spent his evenings at home reading coin books, occult esoterica, and the apocalyptic ramblings of bunker dwellers, all while listening to avant-garde jazz.
“He was pretty open with us about what he did for a living,” said Eleanor Towle. “I mean, it wasn’t as though he could hide it after that business down in Connecticut. My mother was very disappointed in him, and decided the best course of action was to pretend that it simply wasn’t happening. If he gave her money, she thanked him and never mentioned it again. Egon’s criminality was never a topic for discussion in our home.
“But since he came out of East Jersey,” she added, “he’s been different.”
“How?” I said.
“Sadder, but also harder. I suppose that’s what prison does to some people, right? I thought it might have made him reconsider his life, but it hasn’t. If anything, it’s made him more committed to thievery. He knew that no one would give him a job because of his record, so what was the point of trying? I think he’s decided that he might as well continue with what he knows.”
“And the occultism?”
“Yeah, we didn’t talk about that either,” said Eleanor. “My mother was Episcopalian, so she didn’t hold much with the occult. Personally, I regarded it as kind of a joke. Egon always had funny ideas about the world, and he’s never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, but the occult thing has become more of an interest as the years have gone by. If I said he’s curious about it on an intellectual level, that wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Egon is real bright. He taught himself Japanese. He doesn’t even know any Japanese people, doesn’t like flying, and gets seasick in the tub, but still he decided to learn the language, and he only ever uses it when we go to a sushi bar.”
I hadn’t been taking notes. There was no need. What Eleanor Towle was telling me was interesting, but no more than that. I was letting her circle, allowing her to get comfortable with sharing. Now it was time for her to focus.
“Did he ever talk to you about a man named Raum Buker?” I said.
“Yeah, I know Raum some,” said Eleanor. “I ought to. After all, I slept with him.”