John Connolly 

The Sisters Strange

A  web exclusive Charlie Parker novella

 

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40

Kepler checked out of the motel by the mall. He’d already lingered too long there, but he had begun to tire, and staying was easier than moving, physically at least. By night, though, his spirit, or some poisoned version of it that was no longer entirely his own, chose to wander. The entity inside him was growing weary after too many years of his company. He thought it might almost be glad to see him die.
    Raum Buker had not returned to the Braycott Arms, which worried him.  One of the Strange women might know where he was, but Kepler was reluctant to approach them unless he had no other choice. To confront them would mean hurting them, and hurting them would attract further attention. He had already been forced to leave one body behind, and eventually he’d probably be forced to kill Buker, too, because threatening him with the runes on the mirror and Ambar Strange’s door had not worked. 
     In an ideal world, Buker would have realized his error and returned what was not his, but an ideal world would not have housed men as greedy as he or as obsessive as Egon Towle. Buker was playing for time, because he knew the clock was ticking on Kepler, and he just had to stay out of his reach until the time came. Increasingly, then, it seemed likely that Kepler would have no option but to go after one or both of the Sisters Strange, trusting in the possibility that Buker retained some residual affection for the siblings and would wish no harm to befall them. 
    Visiting the Great Lost Bear might have been a mistake, Kepler admitted, but sometimes it paid to flick a fin in the waters. The closer he circled to Raum Buker, the more likely the man would be to panic, which was why Kepler had also left a more forceful reminder of his presence at the home of Dolors Strange. Finally, he’d renewed acquaintance with the desk clerk at the Braycott Arms, the fool with the Western fixation, just in case Buker should yet decide to return there for his possessions. Kepler had balanced the additional cash with a further threat, just to be sure that Wadlin understood his obligations. As a gesture of good faith, Wadlin had revealed that a private detective named Parker had also been asking about Raum Buker. Kepler wasn’t concerned, even after being told a little of Parker’s reputation. Kepler had lived too long, and put too many inquisitive men in the ground, to be worried by this latest incarnation of the breed.
    The new motel wasn’t much better than the old, but the rooms were marginally bigger and the location was further from people and commerce. In the quiet of his bathroom, Kepler stripped naked and bathed himself gently. He hurt more and more with each passing day, so that even the action of the cloth was like sandpaper against his skin, but he liked to stay clean. When he was done, he put on some scent. The bottle was almost empty, but applying the eau de cologne was really more habit than necessity. He had been using it for so long that the odor had infused him, and he exuded the smell of rosewater and civet from his very pores.
    Finally, Kepler stood before the full-length mirror on the door, the runic tattoos on his body like the errors of a life made manifest.  
    And as he watched, something crawled beneath his skin.

Will Quinn knocked on the door of Dolors Strange’s home, but received no reply.  He had already tried Strange Brews, but Dolors had not been seen at the coffee shop since the day before, when she had left early on grounds of illness. According to Faitha, the assistant manager, Dolors had phoned that morning to say that she still wasn’t feeling great, and would be staying home for another day. Now here was Will, flowers in hand, come to check on her, only to find that her car wasn’t in the driveway and the house was empty. Neither was Dolors answering her cell phone.  
    Will looked glumly at the arrangement.  It wasn’t a cheap gas station purchase, but a proper bouquet purchased at Sawyer & Company on Congress Street, with a ribbon and all. He felt kind of dumb standing on the step with no one to accept the offering, like an overgrown kid jilted on prom night. He considered leaving the flowers inside the screen door, but thought they might get crushed. Dolors, he knew, kept big planters beside the rear door of the house, the one that opened into her kitchen. The pots were empty at the moment, given the season, and he thought he might be able to leave the bouquet in one of them, where it could sit without being damaged or taken by the breeze.
    Will walked to the back of the house, and stopped dead. The body of a squirrel was nailed to the door, its belly cut open and its innards coiled on the step. Its blood had been used to leave a mark on the wood. 

    Will Quinn dropped the flowers and made a call.