The Sisters Strange
A web exclusive Charlie Parker novella
THE SISTERS STRANGE
The Great Lost Bear was crowded in the way that only the best bars could sometimes be, as though the gods of drinking and socializing had chosen this evening of all evenings to smile upon it. There was space to move, space to sit, space to speak without being overheard, space to order a drink at the bar, but we were all in sight of one another and a mood of good humor prevailed. Even Dave Evans – who usually tried to be gone before the evening rush descended on this bar that he’d owned for so long – had stayed late, because sometimes the Bear just felt like the place to be.
Beyond the Bear’s walls, Portland was changing. Cities were always in the process of transformation, but maybe I didn’t like the new Portland quite as much as the old. I wasn’t so foolish as to deny that it was partly a function of age, a desire to hold on to as much of the best of the past as possible because I knew how much had already been lost. Ultimately, we are all descendants of Lot’s wife, unable to resist looking back at what we’ve been forced to leave behind, but in this case it wasn’t the advancing years alone. I saw locals reacting unhappily as more hotels rose along the waterfront, and they read about the openings of restaurants in which they couldn’t afford to eat. Cruise ships docked, disgorging blasé passengers who bought T-shirts, fake nautical souvenirs, and maybe a couple of beers in some tourist trap, but weren’t in the market for forty-dollar steaks. Yet someone was eating in those places. It just wasn’t me, or anyone I knew. It felt at times as though the city was being sold out from under us, and when the process was complete we might, if fortunate, be permitted to press our noses against the glass in order to learn how the other half lived.
But then I could also remember when Portland was less prosperous, and people struggled to make a living amid the decrepit wharfs on Commercial and the empty lots off Congress. The poor had always struggled, and would continue to struggle, but now they had to hold down two jobs just to stay afloat, and in bad times they drowned.
Some of this I shared with Dave Evans as we sat in the Bear that night, but it was nothing he hadn’t heard before, or from smarter men.
“Strange Maine,” said Dave Evans, who was drinking a porter so bitter that some antecedent of it had probably once been offered to Christ on the cross.
“The store, or the whole state?”
“The store. That’s the marker, the canary in the coalmine. When that goes, we can raise a cross above the city that was, and lock the cemetery gates.”
Strange Maine was at 578 Congress. It sold old vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, VHS tapes, DVDs, and used Stephen King books alongside ancient gaming consoles and board games so obscure even their creators had forgotten their existence. It had been around since 2003, but felt like a throwback to a more distant era. I had no idea how it stayed in business, yet somehow it did. Every time I passed, I tried to leave some money in the register. My daughter Sam, who already loved vinyl records and pretty much anything older than she was, thought it one of the coolest places on earth – or in Portland, at least.
“You know how old we sound?” I said.
“You started it.”
“Well, there’s a lot about this city that I’ve begun to miss.”
Which was when Raum Buker came into view, and I realized there were some things about the city that I hadn’t missed at all.
There are men who are born into this world blighted, men who are blighted by the world, and men who seem intent upon blighting themselves and the world along with them. Raum Buker somehow contrived to be all three in one person, like a poisonous, inverted deity. He came from somewhere deep in The County, as Mainers termed Aroostook. It was the largest county in the state: seventeen thousand square miles, with 70,000 people to share them, a great many of whom were quite content not to be able to see their neighbors. Raum’s father, Sumner, had worked as a cleaner at Loring Air Force Base, where the B-52 Stratofortress bombers were once based, but lost his job for lighting up a cigarette next to a fuel dump. Since Loring’s tanks stored nearly ten million gallons of aviation fuel alongside more than 5000 tons of ordnance, the resulting explosion would have left a crater that could be viewed from space.
Once he’d been shown the door, Sumner Buker decided he was temperamentally ill-suited to the strictures of regular employment, and his time would be better spent engaging in low-level criminality, drinking, sleeping with women who were not his wife, and smoking anywhere he damn well pleased. To these life choices he committed himself with commendable zeal.
Sumner hadn’t made many wise decisions during his time on earth, but he did choose the perfect woman to be his life partner. Vina Buker also liked drinking and smoking, slept with men who were not her husband, and was once arrested while trying to fill a panel van with tinned food and toiletries from the Hannafords at Caribou where she happened to be employed. Sumner and Vina took turns occupying cells at the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton, which meant that one of them was always home to neglect their only child, Raum. Eventually Raum was taken into foster care, and shortly thereafter his father fulfilled an apparently lifelong ambition by dying in a fire caused by an unwise cigarette, taking his wife with him.
So it could be said, with some justification, that Raum didn’t have the best of starts, but that was true of a whole bunch of folks who didn’t subsequently decide to make the world regret the steady hand of the doctor who had delivered them. Raum Buker became his own worst enemy by election, and because misery likes company, he decided to become the worst enemy of a lot of other people, too.
Raum Buker was a sickly boy, but with more brains than both his parents put together, even if that wasn’t likely to earn him a mention in the record books. He was placed with a good foster family in a nice home down in Millinocket, where he proceeded to do everything in his power to make his foster parents despair of him. This set a pattern for the future, as Raum was moved from foster home to foster home, each one tougher than the last, until finally he ended up in an institution.
By the time he reached manhood, Raum was no longer sickly, and might even, in dim light, have been regarded as handsome. He was also profoundly dishonest and sexually incontinent, with a taste for violence that was both deep and cruelly imaginative: he had once used a hand plane on a carpenter who owed him money, shaving the skin and upper layers of flesh from the man’s buttocks and thighs. The debt was less than a thousand dollars.
Gradually, like fecal matter flowing down a drain, gravity brought Raum to Portland. He kept company with men whom others avoided, and women who were too foolish, desperate, or worn down by abuse to make better life choices.
Then a curious rumor began to circulate. Raum Buker, it was said, was involved with two sisters, the Stranges. The older Strange, Dolors, lived in South Portland, and managed a coffee shop. (Her parents hadn’t been much for spelling, and intended to name her Dolores. Either way, she was destined to end up with a moniker meaning “sorrows,” which might have impacted on the subsequent patterns of her existence.) The younger Strange, Ambar – that defective spelling gene raising its head once again – lived over in Westbrook, where she worked as a dental assistant. Both were unmarried, and, by popular agreement, were likely to remain so. They were forbidding women, mouths pinched tight as misers’ purses. The news that the Sisters Strange, as they were known, might be sleeping with Raum Buker was met with a degree of incredulity combined with some small sense of relief, since it meant that only three people instead of six would be made unhappy by the ensuing carnal arrangements.
One story, which might or might not have been true, was that the Sisters Strange were, appropriately enough, estranged, and had not spoken in years. Raum had originally begun sleeping with Dolors before – possibly by accident, but probably by design – also taking Ambar to his bed. He then continued to move between the pair for a number of years, sometimes consorting with one or the other, but often juggling both at the same time. Either each sister was unaware of the other’s presence in Raum’s life, which was unlikely in a community so small, or they chose to tolerate the peculiarity of the relationship rather than deprive themselves of their share of Raum’s attentions. This is not to say that these complex liaisons were juggled entirely without conflict, and the police were summoned on more than one occasion to deal with domestic disturbances in Westbrook, South Portland, and at Raum’s apartment in Portland’s East End.
But then, as the wiser observers remarked, no relationship was ever perfect.
Raum served time in a variety of houses of correction; he was clever, but like a lot of clever men and women, he wasn’t as clever as he thought. He eventually ended up doing four years in Maine State for a class C felony assault, elevated from a class D misdemeanor because he had prior convictions for aggravated criminal trespass, criminal threatening, and terrorizing. Upon his release, Raum completed eighteen months of probation before vanishing from the state. Mourning at his departure was largely confined to those to whom he owed money, and even they were prepared to swallow their losses in return for being deprived of the misery of Raum’s company.
The Sisters Strange were not canvassed for their views.
Now, it appeared, Raum had returned to Portland.
Raum Buker scanned the bar. His gaze passed over me before returning, alighting on my face like a bug on a clean window. We had history, Raum and I. Toward the end of his last probation period, during which he’d worked at a fish market in order to fulfill one of the conditions of his release, he’d begun falling back into bad habits and worse company. He and a pair of buddies decided to put pressure on older storeowners in Portland and South Portland to hire them as assistants or security guards, even if the stores had no need of them. Not that Raum and his boys would have shown up for work anyway, this being the most basic of protection rackets, the type that probably dated back to the cavemen.
It was Raum’s mistake to target a woman named Meda Michaud, who ran a little bake house and deli off Western Avenue, and played weekly bingo with Mrs. Fulci, beloved mother of the Fulci brothers. The Fulci brothers were overmuscled and undermedicated ex-cons with hearts, if not of gold, then of nickel silver. They were also devoted to their mother, and, by extension, to anyone their mother liked. Trying to strong-arm Meda Michaud was, in the eyes of the Fulcis, only marginally less appalling than harassing Mrs. Fulci herself, and they were thus of a mind to separate Raum Buker’s limbs from his torso before feeding them to his associates until they choked.
But Raum had a reputation for playing rough and holding a grudge. If the Fulcis killed him, which wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility, they’d have ended up in prison, although the citizens of the state would have sent them muffin baskets at Christmas and on birthdays as tokens of gratitude. On the other hand, if they didn’t kill Raum, there was a good chance he’d come after the Fulcis or those close to them, once his broken bones had healed.
So in the end, Louis, Angel, and I offered to keep the Fulcis company, and also do most of the explaining to Raum, the Fulcis being doers rather than talkers. We caught up with Raum and his friends at a dump called Sly’s, formerly part of the business empire of Daddy Helms, a man who had once poured fire ants over me for vandalizing a stained-glass window in one of his bars. Daddy Helms was long dead, his fat rendering in the fires of hell, but Sly’s was a fitting monument to him, being dark, dirty and filled with vermin, both animal and human.
We invited Raum and his pet chimps to step outside for a conversation. When they declined, the Fulcis dragged the chimps out by the hair and ears. Raum followed under his own steam to preserve his dignity and the symmetry of his features. Because we wanted to keep it friendly, we let Raum light a cigarette, although Louis knocked it from his mouth before he could take the first drag because there were limits. We then explained the situation to him. At first, Raum didn’t seem inclined to listen, but he listened better after Louis put a gun in his mouth. Some people’s hearing can be funny that way.
Raum might have considered defying the Fulcis, and he might even have contemplated defying me, but he wasn’t stupid enough to go up against all five of us, especially not with Louis involved. Louis stood out in Portland for all kinds of reasons when he chose to visit us from New York – tall; black; well dressed; gay, not that anyone was asking – but he’d also done things that Raum Buker hadn’t, including, but not limited to, some killing. Raum was suddenly in the presence of an apex predator, and that frightened him. He still didn’t much like being told what to do, but we didn’t much care. Just in case he had second thoughts after we left, we permitted the Fulcis to haul his buddies around some more by the hair and ears before dumping them in the Kennebec to cool off. It marked the end of Raum’s fledgling protection racket, and he left the state soon after.
Now here he was, making the Bear look bad.
“You need a stricter door policy,” I told Dave.
“I think we may need to brick up the door entirely.”
And then the Fulcis, who’d been playing Jenga at a table of their own, spotted Raum Buker.
Some big men can move very fast when they’re riled, which makes them doubly dangerous at close quarters. They possess an innate grace, as though the ghost of a dancer has taken up residence in their bones. Watching them fight is like witnessing a violent ballet, with all of the swans lying unconscious when the curtain goes down.
The Fulci brothers were not those men. Instead they resembled old locomotive engines, in that it took them a while to build up a head of steam, but once they did, it was unwise to get in their way.
The first sign of impending disaster was the sound of Jenga tiles scattering on the Bear’s floor, followed by at least one table and any number of chairs. By the time Dave and I were on our feet, Paulie Fulci was already closing fast on Raum, his brother pounding along not far behind. In retrospect, we were fortunate that they were still accelerating when we reached them and not yet at full tilt, because we were just about able to put the brakes on before they could lay hands on their quarry. Raum had seen them coming, and looked like he was seconds away from climbing over the bar to escape, which wouldn’t have saved him since the Fulcis would just have ploughed right through it. I improved my grip on Tony, Dave got another arm around Paulie, and a couple of bartenders displayed a foolhardy level of bravery by positioning themselves between Raum and the Fulcis, like occidental versions of that guy who stood in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square.
“The fuck is he doing here?” said Paulie.
The question didn’t strike me as being directed at anyone in particular, although it could have been meant for God Himself, an accusation of Divine error for failing to erase Raum Buker from the annals. The Fulcis were great believers in God, although God remained conspicuously silent on the subject of the Fulcis’ allegiance to Him. As one would.
“Yeah,” his brother chimed in, although Tony’s inquiry was clearly aimed at Raum, not God, because his version also contained the words “you” and “senior-abusing motherfucker.”
Raum, being an asshole, didn’t know when to keep quiet, or maybe he just didn’t feel the need now that he thought the Fulcis were under some semblance of control. He was already shooting his mouth off, and I saw that he’d bought himself some new teeth. They were big and white, and made him look like an advertisement for Chiclets. If he’d known how tenuous was my hold on Paulie Fulci, he’d have been a lot less loquacious. For an instant I was even tempted to let Paulie run free, but I didn’t want to be responsible for collateral damage to a bartender.
“He’s not worth a night in a cell,” I told the Fulcis.
“No, he really fucking is,” said Tony.
And you know, I looked at Raum Buker and thought Tony might be right
It took us a while to get the Fulcis to dial their tempers down from raging to merely simmering, by which time Raum had ordered himself a beer and found a safer spot over by the restrooms.
“You ought not to have let him in here,” said Paulie to Dave.
Tony was helping Paulie into his jacket, because Paulie was more sensitive than his brother and didn’t wish to remain within striking distance of Raum, which was certainly for the best.
“I didn’t roll out the red carpet for him, Paulie,” said Dave. “He was standing at the bar before I even noticed he was there.”
“Yeah, well, you ought to have, you know, anticipated such an eventuality.”
“I’m not psychic,” said Dave.
“Then find someone who is,” said Paulie, “and put him on the fucking door.”
Tony patted his brother on the back. Only in Paulie’s company could Tony occasionally resemble someone sane and reasonable. He had a shorter fuse than Paulie, which was no small boast, but lately showed more frequent signs of rationality during his calmer periods.
“This place is important to us,” said Tony. “It’s like our second home.”
Dave winced at that, but let it pass. In his heart of hearts, Dave dearly wished the Fulcis had found another bar to call a second home. They might have added color to the Bear, but it was principally a purplish shade of red from Dave’s high blood pressure.
We watched the Fulcis go. One of the floor staff was collecting Jenga tiles and broken glass, while a second tried to figure out if the Fulcis’ table could be salvaged.
“I might have a word with Raum,” I said.
“I’ll send him on his way when you’re done,” said Dave.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“You don’t have to do that. I can look after my own bar.”
“Call it a favor,” I said, “to you and the Fulcis.”
Dave nodded. We had always got along well, Dave and I, and always would.
I headed over to where Raum was sitting. Now that he’d removed his jacket, I could see he’d muscled up while he was away. He’d also added to his collection of prison tattoos. None of them was any good, except for an intricate pentacle, a pentagram surrounded by a circle, marked by runic symbols. That one was still red and raw on the underside of his left arm.
“You got a minute, Raum?”
He was drinking a bottled domestic beer, and not a good one. It was a beer he could have ordered at any dive in town, but instead he’d come all the way to the Bear, one of the best microbrew bars in the country, which only kept domestics for people who didn’t know any better, or who had given up experimenting the day they got married. The Bear wasn’t even somewhere Raum had frequented back when he’d been living in town. It made me wonder if he’d made the trip just to bait the Fulcis.
“Sure,” he said. “Pull up a chair, take the load off.”
“Good. I was just being polite.”
He yawned, showing off his bright new teeth. When last I’d seen him, his mouth had resembled the ruins of Dresden.
“When did you get back in town?”
“A few days ago.”
“Been anywhere interesting these last few years?”
And his right hand went almost unconsciously to the pentacle tattoo
Raum Buker’s ravening eye caught a young woman leaving the restrooms. She didn’t look flattered by the attention, and no one could have blamed her. I kicked the sole of Raum’s boot, which brought his attention back to me. He wasn’t pleased at being kicked, but didn’t do anything about it beyond scowling.
“You planning on staying in Portland?” I said.
“Why, you need a date? I got to tell you: All my time inside, I never did a guy, and I’m not about to start with you.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Because I haven’t decided yet.”
“Let me help you,” I said. “That’s twice I’ve saved you from being stomped by the Fulcis. There won’t be a third time.”
“Big man. You still letting those animals do your dirty work?”
“No, you’re their dirty work. I take care of my own.”
“What about the two New York queers, you give up hanging on their coattails?”
“You’re a changed man, Raum,” I said. “I don’t recall you being so brave back when you were trying to roll old ladies and Louis was forced to stick a gun in your mouth to make you stop.”
“I remember,” said Raum. “I filed it away for future reference.”
“I’ll be sure to make Louis aware of that. You know, you got drool on his nice, clean gun. Next time, he’ll bring an old one, just in case he has to check the quality of your dentistry. In the meantime, don’t come back here again. It’s not your kind of place.”
Raum set down the bottle, still half-full. He stood to stretch his muscles, like a prizefighter waiting for the bell.
“I was leaving anyway. Like you say, it’s not my kind of place.” He wagged a finger at me. “But maybe down the line, you and I will cross paths somewhere that is my kind of place, somewhere nice and dark, when your friends aren’t around to watch your back.”
“Just you and me, Raum?” I said. “Sure, I’ll take those odds.”
Raum smiled, and somewhere a puppy died.
“Oh no,” he said. “I learned a lot these last few years. When we meet, you’ll be alone, but I’ll have my friends with me.”
“You don’t have any friends,” I said, “except the imaginary kind, and they’re no good in a fight.”
“We’ll see, when the moment comes.”
I was done with him. He’d stopped being interesting the day he was born.
“You take care, Raum,” I said. “I’d hate to see nothing happen to you.”
I returned to Scarborough in driving rain. A truck had jackknifed on Route 1 and the traffic was all backed up, so I listened to Dark Wave on Sirius while I watched the police lightshow. Dark Wave finished on a Smiths song, but I couldn’t listen to The Smiths in quite the same way anymore, not since Morrissey turned into one of the people he used to despise, so I turned off the radio and drove the rest of the way home in silence.
Later, with only shadows for company, I wondered how Raum Buker had managed to get under my skin so quickly. He was a malevolent evolutionary blip, but no more than that. The jails were full of men like him – and the cemeteries, too, nature ultimately finding a way to cull the anomalies from the herd.
Yet experience had taught me not to ignore these feelings of unease. When I’d done so in the past, I’d been wrong. When I’d paid attention, it had left me better prepared for what was to come.
So I drew a circle of my own around Raum Buker, isolating the pentagram of his form, and listened for trouble’s song.
For a while I saw no more of Raum Buker, which suited me just fine. I took on some routine jobs that paid the bills – the confirmation of a simple case of insurance fraud, the interviewing of potential witnesses for an upcoming trial, the shadowing of a straying spouse. (Roby Logan, who’d been a PI in Bangor back in the sixties and seventies, once told me that the worst misfortune ever to have befallen the trade was the introduction of no-fault divorce back in ’73. After that, he said, he could no longer afford a new car every year.) I didn’t shoot at anyone, and nobody shot at me.
Each night I’d take a hot bath, because I hurt more than I used to, and a bath helps. Afterward, I’d look in the mirror, note the scars, and wonder just how deep they went. Sometimes I’d think about how I’d come by them. I’ve heard it claimed that the mind buries the memory of pain in order for life to go on, but that’s not true. They say the same about women and childbirth, but I know plenty of women, my ex-partner Rachel included, for whom the pain of parturition remained fresh even years after the event. I could still recall the agony of the shotgun blasts that had almost taken my life – did take my life, if you talk to the doctors, because I died on that operating table and they brought me back not once, not twice, but three times. I would often wake at night to feel the pellets tearing through me, and sometimes I died all over again.
On an icy January day, I took the long drive to visit the graves of Susan, my wife, and Jennifer, my first daughter. I’d paid to have their headstone cleaned, and the moss cleared from the carved letters. It made the stone look almost new, so that briefly I was a younger man again, seeing their passing confirmed for me by an artisan’s hand. The pain had dulled, but it would never entirely go away, and that was as it should be. Someday, long after I am gone, their identities will be erased entirely by the elements, or the stone may fall and become overgrown by vegetation, and this, too, is the way of things. They won’t be the first to be forgotten in this manner. It’s an old cemetery, and their names will simply be added to its hidden list of the lost.
I won’t be among them, though, or not in that place. I made a decision a long time ago that I wouldn’t rest there. It would cause too much pain to the surviving members of Susan’s family, and I was already responsible in their eyes for a sufficiency of misery. In the end, it won’t matter much where I am laid, although I’ve chosen to be buried next to my grandfather in Scarborough’s Black Point Cemetery, if only to save anyone else the trouble of making the decision on my behalf. I know that I’ll be seeing Jennifer again in the next life – Susan also, perhaps, but certainly Jennifer.
I know, because sometimes I still glimpse her in this life, too. She haunts me, and I am grateful for her presence.
About a week after the incident at the Great Lost Bear, I heard rumors from a cop in South Portland that Dolors Strange might have returned to Raum Buker’s bed. Days later, someone else told me that Raum had been seen eating steamed clams with Ambar Strange down in the Old Port. When I dropped by the restaurant to check if this was true, the kid who’d waited on their table couldn’t say for sure if Raum’s dining companion matched the description of Ambar Strange. He remembered Raum, though, on account of his too-white teeth and the liberal tip he’d left – in cash. The Raum Buker I knew had never been noted for his generosity, financial or spiritual. It sounded as though he’d come into some money.
Finally, and oddest of all, Raum was spotted candlestick bowling with both the Sisters Strange at 33 Elmwood in Westbrook. This time, there could be no doubting the veracity of the sighting, because the three of them were present, plain to see, on the bar’s security footage. They even appeared to be having a good time – or some approximation of it, given the Stranges’ naturally melancholic demeanor and the undeniable involvement of Raum in proceedings.
I spoke of Raum Buker and the Sisters Strange with Angel and Louis when they traveled up to Portland from New York for a few days. Angel and Louis had begun to spend more and more time here since the former’s illness. Their apartment by Eastern Promenade had big picture windows that looked out over Casco Bay, and the sight of the sea salved Angel’s spirit. If Angel was happy, Louis was also happy. Certain couples become like that as they grew older. It saves a lot of strife.
I’ve known Angel and Louis for many years. How we met – well, that’s another story, but they’d stood by me after Susan and Jennifer were taken, and they’ve continued to stand by me in the years that followed. I’ve stood by them, too, and if there were those who speculated about why a former police detective-turned PI kept company with two criminals – one of them, Angel, a thief, and the other, Louis, a harvester of men, the last of the Reapers – they knew better than to offer an opinion within earshot of any of us.
“Why Buker?” said Angel, over fried chicken in honey sauce at CBG on Congress. “After all, it’s not like you’re on the meter for him.”
CBG had previously been Congress Bar and Grill, and before that, Norm’s. But to confuse matters in the uniquely arcane way of Portland drinking establishments, the old Norm’s had operated from premises across the street. That place is now called the Downtown Lounge, although older patrons still occasionally referred to it as Norm’s, and did so even after the new Norm’s opened opposite. This was how people arranging to meet up in Portland sometimes missed one other entirely.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “But I swear, I hear him ticking before I go to sleep at night. He’s like a bomb waiting to go off.”
“He didn’t look like much, last time I saw him,” said Louis. “But then, he was struggling to speak with his mouth full.”
“I think the taste of your gun has lingered,” I said. “He shared some unkind sentiments about you.”
“I’d blush to repeat them, but let’s just say he’s not down with the gay folk.”
Louis considered the problem.
“Could be he just needs to be educated,” he said. “You know, encouraged to think differently. Positive reinforcement.”
“Are you suggesting a carrot and stick approach?”
“No,” said Louis, “just a stick.”
“A stick shaped like a gun?”
“Or we could all stay out of his way,” said Angel, “and let events take their course.”
Louis and I stared at him.
“Right, how stupid of me,” said Angel. “What was I thinking?”
And we went back to eating.
But events did take their course, as events are wont to do. Within days, Raum Buker would be back in my life, but that wasn’t even the bad news.
Raum Buker might have been a despicable man, but the one who would follow after him was infinitely worse.
A day later, I met Will Quinn at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth. The Lobster Shack eatery above the rocks was still closed up, and the wind coming in from the sea meant that few people were around to notice us. Those who had chosen to walk by the lighthouse kept their heads down, which was even better. To help ward off the chill, I’d brought along takeout coffee for both of us from the C Salt Gourmet Market.
I knew Will to see around, and we’d always exchange a nod or pleasantries when we met. He ran a lumber company in York: rough-sawn hemlock and kiln-dried pine, for the most part, with a sideline in custom sawing, although you got fined if the blade hit iron. His clothing always wore a fine coating of sawdust, and he bore traces of it on his skin and hair. I think he liked it that way, and there were worse smells than wood for a man to carry with him.
I don’t have an office, just as I don’t have a secretary. I keep all my records and case notes at home, and the older paperwork in storage. My cell phone functions as an answering service, and I never take on more work than I can comfortably manage. I own my home, have some money in the bank, and a retainer from the Federal Bureau of Investigation – your tax dollars at work – offers me leeway that others in my profession would envy, if they knew of it. The retainer, for what are nebulously described as “consultancy services,” comes with strings attached, but they’re pretty elastic. Admittedly, I’d been forced to cut one or two of them in the past, but only as a last resort. SAC Edgar Ross, who is responsible for administering the retainer, has been known to shout at me when I do this, but I like to think it’s because he simply cares too much. I like to think this, but I know it isn’t true.
When I have to engage privately with clients, I do so at their home, or if that’s not possible, on quiet, neutral ground. Early morning at the Bear often works, before it opens for business at 11:30 a.m., but I’ve sat down for consultations in coffee shops, the back rooms of bookstores, even in one of the empty theaters at the Nickelodeon. Because of some of the cases in which I’ve been involved, my face is better known than I’d prefer. If you’re seen talking to me, you or someone you know is probably in trouble.
But often I find it helps to meet clients in the open air, and talk while we walk. It’s less formal and oppressive, and frees people up to share whatever they need to share. They don’t even have to look at me if they don’t want to. They can just unburden themselves, and I’ll listen. In that sense, it’s not all that different from the quiet of the confessional – apart from the fees, and I’ve waived enough of those to give my accountant nightmares.
Two Lights had been Will’s suggestion. He was already waiting for me when I arrived, standing over by the Lobster Shack watching the waves crash on the rocks, like a figure from some 19th century Romantic painting, assuming any of those artists favored models in tartan lumber wear. He was a small, bearded man in his early fifties, unmarried, no kids. I’d always found him shy, even slightly naive, as though the casual cruelties of the world remained baffling to him.
I handed him his coffee, along with a stirrer and a couple of sugars in case he wanted them. He added both the sugars while we walked, and we chatted about the weather and his business. He asked after Rachel and Sam. I told him they were fine, and Vermont was being largely gentle with them. Rachel and I might not be together, but we both loved our daughter and maintained an affection for each other. Most of our difficulties were now in the past.
After five minutes, Will got around to his reason for asking me there.
“You know Raum Buker?” he said.
“Yes, I know Raum.”
Is he a friend of yours?”
“I haven’t yet hit rock bottom, so no.”
“That’s what I heard. I just wanted to be sure before this went any further.”
He sipped some more of his coffee. “I usually take it sweeter,” he said.
“I could go back and get you more sugar, but I’d have to charge you for my time.”
“I thought you’d take that view. What’s your problem with Raum?”
“I’ve been seeing someone,” said Will. “A woman,” he added, just in case that needed clarification. “I like her a lot.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s good,” although I guessed it wasn’t entirely, or else we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“It was, until Raum Buker showed up,” said Will, “because the woman is Dolors Strange.”
I don’t know why I was surprised to hear that Will Quinn and Dolors Strange might be an item. Perhaps it was because Will seemed an unlikely candidate to be sharing his affections with the same woman as Raum Buker – and more pertinently, to have found those attentions welcomed. It was like learning that someone enjoyed listening to death metal and Philip Glass simultaneously.
“How long has this been going on?” I asked.
“Me and Dolors? About four months. It started when she came by to pick up some bark mulch for her yard.”
Which, I guessed, passed for meeting cute in the lumber business.
“Did she ever speak to you about her time with Raum?” I said.
“I didn’t even know she used to be with him until he showed up in town. I live a quiet life, possibly too quiet. I ought to get out more.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” I said. “Time spent not knowing about Raum Buker is never wasted. But I have to ask: Why are you telling me this?”
“Because he’s bad for her, and I think she’s frightened of him.”
“Did she tell you this?”
“More or less, just before she said that we ought not to see each other for a while.”
It might have been the wind, but his eyes were tearing up. He wiped at them with the sleeve of his jacket.
“That breeze does take the shortcut, doesn’t it?” I said.
“‘When the wind is in the east, ’Tis neither good for man nor beast,’” Will recited. “My mother used to say that. I don’t recall the rest, but that part about the east wind always stuck with me. Now that I come to think of it, I don’t think she ever told me more than that. I loved her dearly, but she never held a glass that wasn’t half empty.”
Nearby, a great black-backed gull stood on a rock and stabbed with its beak at the underbelly of a crab. The force of the impact sent the crab tumbling to the stones below, and the gull followed. The sight did nothing to lighten the mood.
“Did Dolors say why she wanted you gone?” I said.
“Sure. Because of Raum.”
He looked at me as though only an idiot would need that explained to him, and perhaps he’d been wrong to turn to me in his time of tribulation.
“What I mean is, was it because she wanted to get back together with him, or because she was afraid of what might happen if he found you warming your feet by her fire?”
Will thought about this.
“Neither option is very flattering to me, is it?”
“This isn’t about flattery, and whatever you say stays between us.”
“I thought she really liked me. I’d like to believe she still does. I’d even started to consider, you know – ”
The word came out freighted with more incredulity than I’d intended, and Will couldn’t help but pick up on it.
“She’s a nice woman,” he said reprovingly, “once you get to know her.”
I apologized. “So it’s the second option? You think she’s trying to protect you.”
“Still doesn’t make me feel too good about myself, though. I’d like to go after Raum Buker with a tire iron, but what good would that do? I’m no fighter. I’d just end up like that damn crab.”
The gull had retrieved its breakfast, and was chomping down hard on one of the crab’s legs while the rest of the body dangled helplessly in the air. I hoped the crab was dead. It wasn’t as though the world was running a deficit of pain and suffering. The gull adjusted its grip, tossed the crab in the air, and caught it again. I heard the shell snap. Half the crab’s body dropped to the ground, putting the issue to rest.
“Not if you hit him from behind,” I said.
“I couldn’t do that either. Anyway, with my luck I’d probably miss.”
I didn’t mind speaking with Will Quinn, or providing a sympathetic ear for his problems, but I couldn’t see how his difficulties concerned me.
“I’m a private investigator,Will, not a relationship counselor. There’s a limit to what I can do for you here.”
Will turned to face me.
“But this isn’t just a relationship problem,” he said. “It’s also an occult one.”
Will Quinn was a good Christian. He attended St. George’s Episcopal every Sunday, and his company donated generously to local charities at Christmas. I wasn’t sure what his experience of the occult might be, but I was prepared to bet good money that it was fairly narrow, and limited to late night movies that came between him and his sleep.
“Have you seen Buker since he got back?” said Will.
“We had an encounter. I hadn’t planned on another.”
“Did you happen to get a look at the latest tattoo on his arm?”
“I saw it. It’s a pentacle.”
“I know what it is,” said Will. “I looked it up on the internet. It’s an occult symbol. It’s used in the invocation of spirits.”
The best thing about the internet is that it’s easily accessible and available to most. The worst thing about the internet, meanwhile, is that it’s easily accessible and available to most. Technically, what Will had read was true, but on a more benign level the pentacle also symbolized the cycle of life and the connections between the five elements. I pointed this out to him.
“You think Raum Buker got himself tattooed because he’s in touch with the cycle of life?” Will responded. “You did say you’d met him, right?”
He had a point. Raum didn’t strike me as a cycle-of-life type of guy, and the only time the word “benign” might ever be used in connection with him was if he developed a tumor.
“Will, half the assholes who do time come out tattooed. You know the number of back-to-front swastikas I’ve seen on the backs of ex-cons? Most of them are too dumb even to get that much right. They only ever see it in the mirror, so they think it looks okay.”
“This isn’t a swastika,” said Will, “and Buker’s many things, but dumb isn’t one of them. Even Dolors says he’s different now. I’m concerned for her safety.”
“Meaner, angrier. He told her he has trouble sleeping. And – ”
“Go on,” I said.
“He smells like he’s burning.”
I watched Will Quinn drive away. If he wasn’t exactly happy, he was a little less unhappy than when he’d arrived. Against my better judgment, I’d agreed to speak with Dolors Strange about Raum Buker. Will had insisted on paying me for my time, and I’d consented to bill him by the hour without a retainer. In reality, I didn’t expect to be charging him for more than however long it took me to drive to Dolors Strange’s place of business, listen to her tell me to get lost, find somewhere else to buy a coffee, and drive right back home again.
Before Will left, I asked him about the relationship between Dolors and her sister, Ambar.
“It’s better than it used to be,” he said. “Their mother died a year ago come March, and it made them realize they were all each other had. It also helped that Buker wasn’t around any longer.”
“And now that he’s on the scene again?”
“I believe he wants things to return to the way they were.”
He looked embarrassed by what this implied. I could hardly blame him.
“How do the Sisters Strange feel about that?” I said.
“Dolors says she doesn’t want him in her life again, and that I shouldn’t worry about it. She says it’s not going to happen.”
“According to Dolors,” said Quinn, “Ambar is of the same opinion.”
“Then why were the two of them keeping company with Raum at that bowling place over in Westbrook a couple of nights back?”
Will just shrugged miserably.
“I really don’t know.”
The coffee shop managed by Dolors Strange was called, not surprisingly, Strange Brews. I’d never darkened its door because I didn’t want to drink coffee or eat a pastry prepared by someone with intimate physical knowledge of Raum Buker. Inside, as befitted the name, Strange Brews was decked out like a fortune teller’s tent, all red drapes and overstuffed cushions, with crystals, incenses, oils, candles, and New Age books for sale alongside muffins, cookies, and doughnuts. The walls were hung with the kind of paintings and drawings that passed for art among people who dreamed of someday owning a unicorn.
The place was devoid of customers when I arrived, but that might just have been a consequence of the music playing in the background, which sounded like it had been composed for an elf’s funeral. Dolors Strange was working the register, assisted by a teenage girl with a high pain threshold. I sometimes wondered what I’d say if Sam decided that intensive body modification was the way to go. If she was committed to suffering, I could always suggest that she join the Marines, or become a Browns fan.
Dolors Strange was in her early forties, but looked older. She had let her hair go gray, which somehow suited her, and the severity that was incongruous in her youth now seemed more appropriate to her years. No one would ever have called her beautiful, except maybe Will Quinn, but she was interesting-looking, perhaps even attractive in the austere way of certain graveyard statuary. She was checking the change drawer of the register, counting the coins with long, delicate fingers. Her nails were painted purple. The color matched the veins that stood out on the back of her hands, as though deoxygenated blood was accumulating at her fingertips.
“Ms. Strange?” I said, reaching for my license. “I was wondering if I could talk to you for a moment. My name is – ”
“I know who you are,” she said, barely glancing up at me. “I read the papers. I can even take a guess at your business here. What’s he done now?”
“Raum. Why else would you want to speak with me? You can’t be running so short of conversation that you’re reduced to bothering strangers.”
She dropped the ‘r’ on the last word, the way certain Mainers did, making it sound as though it was her family, and hers alone, on which I was electing to intrude for company.
“Raum does come into it,” I said.
“I’m not his keeper. You have a problem with Raum, talk to him yourself.” She finished counting and gave me her full attention for the first time. “Unless you only do that when you have toughs to back you up. I heard how you and your friends once stuck a gun in his mouth.”
“The gun was a last resort,” I said.
“Not in your case, if what I’ve heard is true.”
“That stings,” I said. “If you’re done, I’d still like to speak with you. In private.”
“Yeah, I’m done, but that also goes for the conversation. If Raum even hears you’ve been in here, I’ll be in a world of trouble. He’s got no love for you, Mr. Parker.”
“Some people are concerned that you’re already in a world of trouble, Ms. Strange.”
She squinted at me, and her lips managed, against all odds, to grow even thinner. I thought, for a moment, that she might be about to explode with rage, but gradually some of the tension eased from her, and I glimpsed something like resignation or regret.
“I can guess who that might be,” she said. “You tell Will he has no reason to fret. I can handle Raum.”
And only the slightest tremor to her voice and hands gave away the lie.
I’d struck out badly with Dolors Strange – not that I’d anticipated a better outcome, but if we don’t have optimism, what have we? The sensible option would have been to wipe my hands of the whole affair and advise Will Quinn to go back to hanging out by his mulch pile in the hope that love, having once found him there, might consider coming around for a second try.
On the other hand, all human beings contain within them a self-destructive urge. It most typically manifests itself as addiction – food, drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, and violence, because that, too, becomes addictive – but even the most disciplined of us will sometimes hear its echo, or see, for an instant, the world through its eyes. It’s the voice that speaks in your head as you walk along a cliff edge, before offering a vision of your body tumbling to the rocks below. The more vulnerable you are, the more insistent it becomes. The only ones untroubled by it are the dead.
Thus, having failed with Dolors Strange, it seemed almost natural to court failure with her younger sister, too. The dentist’s office at which Ambar worked operated half-days on Wednesdays, which I didn’t discover until I dropped by. I should have taken this as an omen, but by then I was committed, so I continued to her home.
Ambar Strange lived in a two-bed Cape cottage off Railway Avenue. The property was probably worth about $300,000. Real estate records showed that Ambar had bought it for just over $200,000 back in 2015, so it had turned out to be a good investment. It was painted burnt ochre with a cream trim, and had a small, over-ornate portico enclosing the front door, lending it the aspect of a gingerbread house. All that was needed to complete the picture was a witch, but I had to settle for an ogre.
Raum Buker appeared from the rear of the cottage, Ambar Strange following behind, her hands buried deep in her pockets. She was six years younger and six inches shorter than Dolors, and carried just enough weight to soften the edges that showed so sharply in her sister. Her hair was a vivid red, its color enhanced by a bottle, and tied in a ponytail that hung over her left shoulder. She was wearing a quilted vest with a sweater and jeans, and tan Timberlands. She and Raum spoke for a few minutes beside the front door. When he leaned down to kiss her – because Raum was a tall man, six feet and change ¬– she turned her head so that he caught her cheek, not her mouth. He tried again, this time gripping her chin with his right hand, but she pulled away from him. Raum wasn’t happy about this, and let her know it – loudly. With the window rolled down, I heard it all.
“Fuck you,” said Raum. “You asked me to come over.”
“For help,” said Ambar, “not for that.”
“It’s busted glass. You want help, call a glazier.”
He stomped back to his car. Raum Buker: gentleman caller, comforter of the afflicted. He was driving a red Chevy Monte Carlo in rough condition. If he’d paid more than five hundred dollars for it, he’d been robbed.
I hoped he’d paid more than five hundred.
Ambar Strange went into her home and closed the door behind her, which meant she didn’t see what happened next. As he got to the car, Raum rolled up the sleeve of his jacket and began scratching at the recent pentacle tattoo on his arm. Perhaps it was itching as it healed; I’ve never been tattooed, so I couldn’t say for sure. But as I watched, Raum progressed from scratching to tearing, his nails gradually digging through the skin into the flesh beneath, and I could see the blood running down his wrist and palm before dripping from his fingers to the dirt. Despite the pain he must have been causing himself, his expression never varied, not once.
His face remained a mask of absolute desolation.
I once met a writer who believed some men were so morally corrupt that their depravity found a physical expression; in other words, their moral disfigurement manifested itself as an alteration to feature or form. It was, I felt, a variation on phrenology or physiognomy, the discredited pseudoscientific convictions that the shape of a skull or face might disclose essential traits of character. Were it true, the job of law enforcement would be made significantly easier: we could simply jail all the ugly people.
But evil – true evil, not the mundane human wickedness born of fear, envy, wrath, or greed – is adept at concealment, because it wishes to survive and persist. Only when it’s ready, or is forced to do so, does it reveal itself. Not even evil is free from the rule of nature.
Certain parasitic wasps lay their eggs either on or in host creatures, frequently caterpillars. The injector, known as an endoparasitoid, attempts to introduce its eggs into the host, which – if the wasp is successful – will continue to mature, its development unhindered by the alien organisms it is carrying.
But the wasp has to take precautions. The caterpillar instinctively recognizes the threat posed by the predator; it doesn’t care to be eaten alive from the inside. It wriggles and jerks. It bites, or secretes poisons from its skin. It might even win, if it struggles hard enough.
But often it doesn’t struggle sufficiently.
Sometimes, it doesn’t struggle at all.
When the wasp is done, and the eggs have been laid, it places a chemical marker on the host. The wasp doesn’t want to inject the same host twice, nor does it want other wasps to target it. But even now the caterpillar has not yet entirely lost the battle against fatal infection. If its instinct and strength allow, the host may seek to purge itself of the parasites by ingesting alkaloids from certain plants. Yet not every infected host will attempt to do this. Why is unclear.
The host that does not fight, does not purge, will succumb. The eggs grow by absorbing bodily fluids before the larvae eventually hatch and feed on the surrounding tissue from within, chewing their way out as the host dies. Until that moment of revelation, all that may be observed is a creature, blighted but outwardly unchanged, going about its affairs.
I now believe that something foul might have infected Raum Buker, although even with the benefit of hindsight, and some imperfect knowledge of the events that followed, I’m not certain of what it was. My guess is that Raum’s immunity to contamination – because only the very worst of us are born without some protection – had been compromised by flaws in his nature and upbringing, leaving him vulnerable to predation. I’d like to think he tried to fight it. I may be wrong. What I witnessed that day outside Ambar Strange’s cottage could just have been a man driven to mutilate himself by an infected wound, but I feel – I hope – it was more than that.
I think it was Raum Buker trying to purge himself before it was too late.
Unlike her sister, Ambar Strange didn’t immediately recognize me or display any particular resentment at my presence. She might, though, have been anticipating greeting a chastened Raum Buker when she opened the door, because she appeared simultaneously disappointed and mildly relieved, which is a difficult combination to pull off. She looked tired, the kind of cumulative exhaustion that comes from the loss of more than one night’s sleep.
I showed her my P.I. license, and she frowned as she made the connection.
“You the guy who stuck a gun in Raum’s mouth?” she said.
“That was my colleague.”
“You didn’t try to stop him?”
“He’s difficult to dissuade once he has his heart fixed on something.”
She mulled on this.
“I guess Raum probably asked for it,” she said at last. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more often.”
She was still holding my license. She glanced at it again, and her thought processes moved on.
“So who hired you?” she said. “Because that’s how you guys work, right? It’s not like you’re the police. Is this about Raum, or me?”
“Raum, mostly. As for who hired me, I’m working for someone who’s worried about your sister.”
“Will Quinn,” she said, brightening. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Yes, it’s Will.”
“He’s sweet. Dolors could do a lot worse.”
Her smile faded.
“Sure, like Raum.”
She took in the dead end street, searching for his car.
“He’s gone,” I said. “I watched him drive away.”
“He’ll be back.”
“You don’t sound very happy about that.”
“Like your friend with the gun, Raum’s also hard to dissuade once he’s set on something.”
“And what would that be?”
She gave me the cold eye.
“What do you think?”
It was hard to know how to respond to the Stranges’ singular sexual arrangements, past or present, without sounding prurient or prudish. Theirs was the kind of entanglement that made a man want to grab David Crosby by the scruff of the neck halfway through a rendition of “Triad,” his ode to troilism, and announce, See, David, this is why you can’t go on as three.
“Could we talk inside?” I said.
“Raum wouldn’t like it.”
“Raum doesn’t have to know.”
Ambar Strange folded her arms. It was cold, so she had reason to shiver, but in this case the weather wasn’t it.
“He’ll know,” she said, and her voice was very small.
I thought again of her sister, and the giveaway tremor. I saw Raum Buker scratching at his tattoo until it bled. I counted three fearful people, but I couldn’t say if they were all frightened of the same thing. My sense was that the Sisters Strange were scared of Raum Buker, but it didn’t appear that Raum Buker had reason to be scared of the Sisters Strange.
“Ms. Strange,” I said, “what’s Raum doing back in Portland?”
“He served his time. Why wouldn’t he return here?”
Because I’m a trained investigator, I noticed she was avoiding the question.
“Do you know where he was incarcerated?”
I’d heard whispers that Raum had been locked up in Jersey. I hadn’t asked for more details because I was just happy he’d been locked up somewhere.
“Any idea why?”
“For getting caught.”
“Funny. Other than that?”
“Ask him yourself.”
“It’s something I have to look forward to,” I said. “Until that happy day, this is a big state, and Raum and Portland have never seen eye-to-eye. He could have gone to a lot of other places and attracted a great deal less attention. Did he return here because of you or your sister?”
Her face twitched, as though I’d touched on an old wound. The answer was given before she had time to stop herself.
“No. He’s waiting,” she said, and managed to load a wicked bunch of scorn into the final word.
“Waiting for what?”
She unfolded her arms and made a dismissive gesture with her right hand.
“Oh, just waiting. Raum always has some plan for an easy score. God forbid he’d work for a living.”
“Has he told you what the current plan might be?”
She shook her head. “He has some money, but says he’s going to have more. That’s all I know. Why am I telling you this? Jesus, I shouldn’t even be talking to you. In fact, I’d like you to leave right now. I don’t have anything else to say.”
She started to go back inside. My time with her was almost over.
“One last question,” I said.
She banged her head gently against the doorframe in frustration.
“What is it?”
“What were you and Raum arguing about earlier?”
“You saw that?”
“Some of it. I heard a little, too.”
“A door pane at the back of the house got damaged last night. I was worried.
I thought someone might have been trying to break in, but Raum told me it was probably just an animal.”
“Why would he say that?”
“Because the screen door was all torn up, and the glass was scratched.”
“Would you mind if I took a look?” I said.
“Yes, I would.”
And with that, Ambar Strange closed the front door in my face.