Are You Haunted
Powell Kenzie has wandered, living the life of a vagabond, since his discharge from the army. The year is 1948. He finds himself in a small town, by watchman Lloyd Guy given temporary berth in the remains of the Drybrook works. On the hill opposite the highway that divides them, is the empty Drybrook house. Powell, taken with an urge to settle, conceives a plan to prove his usefulness. He meets Heinz Rohdl, an immigrant chemist, a man seemingly insane. Then a visitor named Summers arrives to tell a ghost story. Powell finds an ally in Isobel Gilshannon, wife of Dennis Tovey. Tovey himself is of a disreputable local clan, and proves not altogether a friend.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind Saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The walls that remained almost sheltered like a roof, when the wind pitched up and drove the rain. They were edged in dust; dust sifted with charred splinters and shards of glass. It was dry on this lee side. The rest was mud. Powell’s shoes were caked with the worst mired there, clotted pebbles throwing him off-balance. He remembered this, how it felt. Only then he’d had army boots to snug round his ankles. Wet socks were misery.
He would roll tight against the farthest corner. He would pull his jacket over his ears, and sleep. The immigrant Rohdl spoke, from the other side of the wall. “What have I done? If I have done anything, then goddamn. Prove it. Or why should I go?”
Rohdl was welcome to all the territory in this burned out ruin he chose to claim. He called to Powell, “There. You heard that.” Rohdl was a short man. Powell, wanting only to lie down, came to the wall and looked over it, into his eyes. “No. Sorry, I didn’t.”
But the voice was constant, Rohdl said. He heard it, telling him, “Go. Get out of here.”
He could carry on, fighting his ghosts, and it would make no difference to Powell. Powell had grown used, once, to sleeping through thunderous racket. Rohdl might dream aloud, ramble in his delusions. Probably these states, dreaming and waking, shaded into one another, as Rohdl’s English shaded into German. After nightfall, Powell could only listen. Lightning flashed, but his chamber walls were shown, by the daylight intensity of its illumination, to be bare. Nothing scrappable would have passed the shortages of wartime. Tomorrow he might find a sturdy piece of wood and root around in the mud. Without too much effort, he could fill a bucket with washers, bolts, screws, surviving bits of metal trodden deep…if Mr. Guy would lend him a bucket.
He heard crickets, and the repeated call of a whippoorwill. And they would not have started up—he knew this much of nature—unless the storm were retreating. He heard Rohdl.
“You know nothing about me. For a very long time, I will stay.”
Continued from “I will stay”
He smelled Lloyd Guy’s cigarette. The Big Chief was probably sitting in his Ford, pulled up just inside the gate. When he opened his door, and hurled the butt over the wall―where it might land on Rohdl, Powell thought―Guy would sound the horn. Powell was awake already, hungrier than he let himself think about most days. Guy had bought him a sandwich yesterday, that was the trouble. But he might again today.
He’d slept in shirtsleeves, the night air had been so hot. He’d bundled his suit jacket and used it for a pillow, half-wrapped it over his head, to shut out the morning light.
“Don’t bring your friends out here,” Guy said. Powell sat up, and already Guy was standing there.
“I don’t have friends.”
“I said to her, I’m not gon’ have a woman out here alone. Plain crazy.” Guy took off his straw fedora, and waved it under his chin. “Then, your lady friend told me her husband had gone away, to get water for the radiator. I told her, I seen your old man, but I never seen any car.”
Powell pushed himself to his feet. He wasn’t getting the Big Chief’s point of view. “Why wouldn’t you believe her? You drove me out here yourself. You know I didn’t have anyone with me.”
“I know when people turn up don’t belong here. I got two of ’em right now. And you told me, Mr. Kenzie, you wouldn’t do a job for me. You must not be hurtin’ for money. No, sir, I don’t think she’s married to you, and I don’t think you got a vehicle hid somewheres. But I’ll tell you what I do think. When I haul her up here, and show her to you, I’m gon’ be watchin’ your face close, Mr. Kenzie.”
“Only the one house among all the others,” Rohdl’s voice came to them over the wall. “The windows, black as I recall them, but not shuttered. And why did a vine grow there, to poison itself? Why was I stared at and told to go away?”
“See, now, that’un—” Guy cocked his head in the wall’s direction. “I’m not inclined to do anything about him, ’cept run him off, if I find him up at the house again.”
This was a confidence, on the heels of a threat. The house factored into Powell’s nascent scheme, and he needed Guy to trust him, maybe like him. Guy, who was not really a cop, but talked as though he had been once.
“You can’t sleep in the city park, son. But no one’ll mind you, if you spend the night out here. They won’t, ’cause I patrol the Drybrook place, and the old mill. You see, Mr. Kenzie,” Guy had leaned over, and shaken cigarette ash over Powell’s trouser leg, “you gotta stay on my right side.”
And taking Powell for a war veteran down on his luck, he’d talked about a lot he owned that needed cleaning up. Five bucks, for what Guy called a day’s labor. Five bucks if it ended up two days’, or three days’ labor. Yes, Powell was a war veteran, and he was down on his luck—if you looked at it that way—but he didn’t do menial chores. He thought Guy’s patrolman’s job must be easy, just driving around, mostly.
He had said no. And managed to offend the Big Chief, who’d maybe thought the offer charity. Powell wasn’t sure how he was going to work this out.
“Mr. Guy, sir, can I beg a ride to town off you?”
He figured he sounded rude. He generally did, and with no intention. The adults he’d known growing up had broken their silence only when a thing displeased them. His uncle and his mother, at times forced into polite speech, would put quotes on it, their voices sardonic, their eyes shifting to the side.
“Sure, get in the car…but we gotta find that girl. She told me”—Guy raised his eyebrows—“she had to go into the woods. And I couldn’t do anything about that. She may have run off by now, but I better have a look up around the house.”
The Ford skirted the ruin, crossed the highway, and bumped, ascending the dirt and semi-graveled―mostly dirt―lane that climbed the slope. Guy hauled on the steering wheel. Here, where once the house must have had a proper brick-laid drive, deep gouges ground by the comings and goings of the lost and the curious had filled with water. The Ford lurched; it nearly stalled. Powell was grateful when Guy, with the skill of a practiced man, put just the right pressure on the gas pedal. He did not at all wish to leave his seat, to help Guy slosh through mud holes, pushing this behemoth over the hump. They began to move upwards at a crawl.
He saw the Big Chief peering through his side window.
“Do somethin’ useful with yourself there, Kenzie,” Guy said. “Keep an eye out.”
Powell preferred not to spot her. He couldn’t see his face giving anything away; but then…that would depend on how Guy chose to interpret whatever by happenstance appeared there. She might be pretty. She might even be someone he’d panhandled in the town.
He wasn’t looking at the house, because he’d seen it already. This was like any New England farmhouse. Whitewash over brick, green shutters. A broad, flat front, no veranda. He would have hated, himself, not to have a nice front porch for sitting. And why, he thought, looking at the four big maples overarching the front lawn, would you not want to lean back on a swing, sip at a cup of coffee, and watch the colors come out, as the autumn leaves turned?
The driver’s door slammed. Guy had pulled it open all the way, before, with a particular oomph, heaving it shut. Powell, who would at this shock have spilled his imaginary cup of coffee, leaned across the seat to look up into Guy’s face. The Big Chief in his turn bent over, propping his forearm on the cranked down window-edge.
“If you’re waitin’ for me to come round and open the door for you, I ain’t gon’ do it,” he said.
Powell wasn’t endearing himself to Lloyd Guy. Guy had already gone up to the house, and was joggling the door knob. As Powell caught up to him, he dug in his trouser pocket, pulling out a ring of keys.
“Can we go inside?” Powell asked. Guy snorted, and pushed his straw hat back on his head. “Nothin’ to look at inside…but you might as well find out for yourself. I’m gon’ know who was the last person in the house. Then we’ll see what happens next.”
Powell shrugged at this latest implied threat. He waited until Guy had crossed the threshold and couldn’t see him do it. As he stepped into the house, alerted possibly by the eye-catching red of her kerchief, he turned on his heel and gave a glance towards the little fieldstone shed half-hid behind the trunk of a maple.
The girl wasn’t hiding. She was staring back at him, a closed-mouthed smile on her face. She had dark, dark hair and pale skin. Powell, feeling a kinship with any fellow vagabond, shooed at her with his hand, the only warning he could give, before he slipped in after Lloyd Guy.
He saw daylight through the shutters striping the floors. Each stripe sparkled with dust. The Drybrook place was neglected, but only mildly so. The trust must pay for a housekeeping service. And Guy only policed the grounds. Someone else must stop by, now and again, to run a mower over the grass. All that, Powell needed to take into account. Otherwise, the downstairs rooms, having not a stick of furniture, were alike. He saw the old floorboards showed every kind of wear—scratches, paint-spatters, rat holes patched with tin-can lids. The floors must, in their day, have been covered in carpeting. The walls were covered in a moiré patterned paper, a tea-stained yellow, once pure vanilla. That was plain from the rectangles and irregular outlines, the traces of picture frames, an S-curved sofa back, possibly a freestanding cabinet…furnishings that had blocked the fireplace smoke.
Guy was upstairs in one of the bedrooms. Powell heard a floorboard knock against the beam it rested on, then pop back into place a half beat after. Ba-bump. Maybe for pleasure, Guy trod on this a second time, while door hinges made a grinding noise, their torque growing more pronounced as the door swung further from its sash. The knob hit plaster. Powell heard the floorboard bump once more, again the whining hinges. Guy trotted down the stairs.
“What’d you get yourself into?” he asked Powell.
“All I’ve done is stand right here, Mr. Guy. Do they keep this place heated?”
“In the winter. Ain’t runnin’ heat now.”
“Can I look at the kitchen?”
“Jesus! You wanna see the downstairs, I don’t know why you ain’t gone ahead.” But Guy led the way, back through the parlor and around the staircase. They had made a half-circuit of the house, and were headed towards its rear. Here a short hallway was lighted by a pair of mullioned windows, a flight of three steps descended, the proportions colonial, barely two feet across, each worn slick in the center.
The kitchen had been somewhat modernized. Powell yielded to the universal impulse, and opened the icebox door. The electric was off, the shelves were empty. A pale green range that looked as though it might be coal-fired, brooded alone against a yellow wall. The linoleum was a scuffed green and yellow.
“There you go, Mr. Kenzie. Ready to move in? Gon’ make Mrs. Drybrook an offer?”
Powell quit looking at the flooring, and looked at Guy. He would give himself away, standing here, with no smart answer to deflect Guy’s shrewdness. And yet, for a moment, he felt he’d seen something frank in the Big Chief’s blue-eyed gaze.
He had meant to have this conversation anyway.
“What’s that little shed out near the front?” he asked.
“I’d be hard put”—Guy jingled his keys, and thrust them away in his pocket—“to answer a question like that.”
“Sorry. I’m asking, what do they keep in there?”
Powell guessed she had gone, but could picture the way she’d smiled at him. When he’d waved his warning hand, the smile had broadened. And in just the same way, she had waved back, mimicking him.
“Well, I never looked. You just better come out with me and see.”
He trailed after Guy, stalling to gaze back over his shoulder at wildly overgrown lilacs, blossoming branch tips prying into the windows on the unshaded kitchen side. He saw peonies, their buds not yet unfurled, crawling with ants—half a dozen bushes planted around the shed, where through maple leaves, sun dappled. These might billow out in a blowsy pink, but were at the moment white, edged blood red.
“You damn lazy, or what? How long’s it gon’ take you to mosey over here?”
Powell knew no excuse that would improve Guy’s mood. He had been looking at flowers. “I’m sorry,” he said. The door, not high enough anyone could have walked through it upright, was white-washed over rotted, damp wood. Much of this coat had peeled away, much become stained algal green.
Powell believed Guy now. He’d expected some trick, some way in which the Big Chief meant to show him up for a thief, pretending he hadn’t, as watchdog, been over every inch of the place. But someone had piled bricks in front of the shed…not many, but enough. Had some vagrant taken shelter here, Guy would have known it.
“You dig them bricks away, and have yourself a look. Door ain’t locked,” Guy told him.
Powell wasn’t nearly curious enough to bother. He’d thought she might have hidden in there. It was manifest to him she hadn’t. But he must save a little face with Guy. He tossed bricks, one after another, finding vague gratification in the way they burrowed into earth, their sharp corners canting them like monoliths of a miniature temple.
The door broke apart. The rusted lower hinge gave under pressure, three of the punked verticals shredding at the bottom. Powell, not expecting the hinge to snap, had pulled too hard, and the door, pivoting away from his hand, had stubbed up against one of the bricks. He heard an unfriendly laugh from Lloyd Guy.
“You’re makin’ a lot of work for yourself, Mr. Kenzie.”
Powell kept his face turned to the shed’s interior, seeing there an inviting refuge. It was not dark, and the mossy ground beneath its roof was solid. The flat stones, flush as they had been stacked, still allowed light to pierce through innumerable crevices. Guy’s manner was beginning to weigh on Powell. He was like Breedman, another fellow southerner whom Powell had never expected to meet where he’d run across him. Breedman also had been a little lowly, and seized on any opportunity to taunt Powell over his education. He ducked. They hadn’t stored anything here. He found only a pile of burlap sacking, tested it, kicked at it, and when nothing slithered out, Powell sat down. He might wait a while. He had no carpentry skills; he could not fix the door. He had no money; he could not pay for it.
L’aborrita rivale a me sfuggia…
Far below was the center of a black cave, lit with an effect of flickering torchlight. He thought it could not have been real torchlight. There had been a terrible fire; it had been not that many years before. But the tiny figures, robed in white, so striking in appearance…
People crowded, less conspicuous in the balcony seats, and so less concerned about fidgeting, coughing, speaking, sometimes eating. Rohdl remembered a hot, close atmosphere that smelled of badly aired furs, carrying layers of human sweat and old perfume decayed to ammonia. A conversation distracted his attention from the aria, when he wanted only to concentrate on this hallucinatory swelter and stink and vision.
“Kant was not precisely correct.”
“Well, then, I have wasted my education. You have learned better things listening to the dreams of factory workers.”
“Social approval is the only model of ethics known to the average person. To be allowed in, or to be kept out. And if you are kept out, then of course, ethics are of no use to you.”
“Do you want to know my name? Why don’t you tell me yours?”
Continued from “tell me yours”
“My name,” he told her, “is Heinz Rohdl. I have been telling you about these people.”
“Yes,” she said, and she reached for the hand with which he had dismissed her interruption…and shook it, though he had not offered to introduce himself. She tilted her head sideways. The gesture, and her small, tight smile, meant something of mischief, perhaps, that Rohdl could not read. He knew that Mr. Guy had gone to look at the shed with Mr. Kenzie.
“I’m Isobel Gilshannon,” she told him.
“So the house is not empty, though they will say it is,” he finished.
They both heard Lloyd Guy’s breathing, as he came towards them, still hidden by the lilacs. They saw him emerge, rummaging in his back pocket, saw his straw hat bloom white in a shaft of sunlight. Rodhl had ushered Isobel to this vantage point, to show her the upstairs window that overlooked the garden. They waited, standing on the back lawn, beside a construction of lead piping, wrapped round and round with brittle vines hung with dried, split pods; but everywhere also, in and among the old, a fecundity of new shoots, tiny hairy tendrils of morning glory. Rohdl had wanted her to note this prematurity, see the rectangle of fierce green, tufted grass inches taller than the rest.
“Gilshannon,” Guy said, slowing his pace. He now held a little notebook in one hand, and a pen in the other. “How you spell that?”
“Chief, you can call me Isobel,” she told him. Being no more than Rohdl’s height, she stood, feet planted, and looked up into Guy’s face. “Have you been playing mean pranks?”
He dropped his arms, dangling pen and notebook, exaggerating his disbelief. His question for Isobel echoed what he’d said to Powell Kenzie.
“How in heck I gon’ answer a thing like that?”
“Mr. Rohdl,” she said, steady in her gaze, “tells me he has seen someone pass by the window, dressed in a white robe.”
Guy looked over her head. Rohdl seemed absorbed, picking away pieces of dead vine, tender in extricating these from the living.
“You come back to the car with me,” he told Isobel. As she followed him he said, the anger in his voice escalating, “Lady, you are some kinda troublemaker. And you got no business here. But…” He stopped, turned around on her, close on the toes of her loafers, forcing her to stop. “Let me tell you. I get into that house every day. Ain’t nobody else been in there. Now how in the…” He wavered. Then showing, to Isobel’s amusement, delicacy towards Rohdl, rather than the woman, Lloyd Guy blasted a whisper in her face, “…in the motherfucking hell, do you get the idea I would be…”
“Playing ghost?” He had not perturbed her. “Oh, maybe you wouldn’t.” She waved her hand. “But you say so yourself. Nobody’s been in there. You’re the only one who wants to keep people out, Mr. Guy. And poor Mr. Rohdl would be easy to spook.”
Powell heard a mechanical sound. A wheel, off its bearings, that creaked with each rotation, but sounded like a death cry, the rhythmic final breaths of a refugee trapped in rubble. He thought of the extraordinary discovery he had made in the cellar at Liége. He recalled a verse, written by a poet of the Great War.
You cannot put dead things on trial
Gibbet the limbs and rags that hang
Already from the blasted stump
I paused beside my father at the station
He held a flag
I may have seen it jostled
From his hand his eyes
Rippled like a shell pool in a gust of wind
It was foolish, and dangerous, maybe, to hide in this little shed. He had better go out. Guy had found the girl. Powell had heard him raise his voice to her, and she’d shut him up, with whatever she’d said back. She hadn’t looked to Powell as though she cared whether Guy meant to run her off the property.
Powell, cowardly and lazy in Guy’s eyes, made an easier target.
“There’s Mr. Kenzie. He musta been takin’ a nap in that shed. I want you both in the car.”
Powell quit studying the dust his fingertips had gathered from the windowsill. Isobel had chosen this booth, at the front, where they could see the street through the window, Powell sliding onto the high-backed wooden bench across from her. The Crown café’s interior looked fifty years old. Its surfaces had slowly abraded under scrub brushes and dust rags. The varnish of their booth had become brittle, and Powell could not touch it without tiny flakes, translucent brown like horehound candy, chipping away. The lights, pendant on iron rods, shined circles over the torn linoleum of the aisle between the lunch counter and the booths. A wide-slatted blind, pulled to an unequal height on one side, exposed dust and dead flies. The staff of the Crown café cleaned, it seemed, from the lunch-counter outwards, their resolve flagging at the restaurant’s shabby margins.
Powell, who’d meant to wander up Washington Street to the Wesleyan chapel basement where he’d cadged his last meal, had been made shy by Isobel. She had taken him by the arm, immediately on their exiting Guy’s Ford. He had in truth a nickel to his name, and with this in mind, Powell had stood a moment too long, after Guy tapped the horn, and leaned all the way across the seat, squinting up at him through the passenger side window. The Big Chief had given Isobel the briefest, dismissive glance. He spoke only to Powell, leaving him with the warning, “You two got plenty time to catch the noon bus outta town.”
“Dennis Tovey, I ought to tell you,” she added. He heard the door, which rang a bell when anyone opened it, and with its own blind jangled and banged so loudly the bell should have been unnecessary. Tovey was what Powell’s mother had called a “banty little man”, short and wiry, straight black hair slicked with pomade tight to his head.
“Though he is really my husband.” She said this to Powell with a show of ruefulness, that left him uncertain whether Isobel and Tovey liked each other.
“I see no food on the table.”
Tovey bowed, clasping hands behind his back. He lifted a placemat, pouched his eyes and peered underneath it in imitation of, Powell guessed, Charlie Chan. Thrusting an arm sleeved in gabardine past Powell’s eyes to part the slats, Tovey darted a glance out the window. He at last perched beside Isobel, one leg jutting in the aisle, head thrown over his shoulder, and murmured something under his breath.
“Well, never mind that,” she told him. “We’ve only been here a minute. Have you got the car?”
Tovey jumped up, having scarcely come to a full sit, crossed to the lunch counter and slapped his hand down.
“But they don’t serve lunch until eleven. That’s what the sign says.” It was around ten thirty. Powell had spoken quietly to Isobel.
“Dennis has been to see Mrs. Drybrook.”
He thought she was paying him no attention. And she’d had no cause to. Dennis came back, followed by an apron-clad woman, still with a magazine place-marked in her left hand, but with two coffee cups in her right. She set these before Isobel and Powell. “Are there three of you?” she asked, stuffing away her story, withdrawing a pad and pencil from her apron pocket, a slight, peevish emphasis on “three”.
Powell pushed his cup across the table, and opened his mouth to say, “No, I can’t.” Isobel’s hand covered his.
“Never mind,” she said again. “I was telling you, wasn’t I? Dennis will have some money.”
They were eating hamburgers, hash browns, and tomato soup, the Crown grown redolent of hot coffee and hot grease; by now, they were not the only customers.
“How much did she give you?” Isobel asked.
“Two dollars for gas, but the tank’s full enough. We’ll be fine going up to the house.”
“She won’t like you running up a tab.” Isobel cradled her soup bowl, and looked down at saltines dissolving to mush. Everything she’d said to Powell, so far, had been underlaid with meaning. Now her voice held no inflection, and Tovey ignored her.
“Where…” Powell began. Isobel, swirling her spoon, paused. Tovey stopped chewing.
“Same place you started out this morning.”
He crowded Isobel into the corner on their side of the booth, and answered Powell with his mouth full. He leaned low over his plate as he forked at his hash browns. He sat up straighter. “That’s the house we’re talking about.”
“I meant—” Powell wished he had money of his own. He’d finished eating first; his plate was clean down to the last pickle seed, and he was still hungry. “Or, I was going to say, where does Mrs. Drybrook live? I don’t see anything wrong with the house.”
“Oh, she must be near eighty, my old auntie. Is she my aunt?” Sly, Tovey bumped Isobel with his forearm.
“Drybrook had only the one son, but it was his second wife who came into the family already cursed…” Isobel gave Powell her closed-mouthed smile, and Tovey bumped her arm again.
“My old granny, then. We’ll just say. Lives in town…got no use for the car.”
“Well,” said Isobel, “we can’t let Mr. Guy see us driving it.”
Tovey led them up High Street, striding past the barber shop and the bank building on the corner. Where Canal Street angled away from the center of town, he stopped and pointed.
“There you go, Kenzie, take a look! Think you can drive that?”
The car was unmistakable. Powell would have bet all the locals knew it. She probably had a garage where they changed the oil and kept the battery charged. A pre-war Buick, twenty years old at least, wouldn’t run at all otherwise. And everyone in town would be used to seeing Mrs. Drybrook on the days she took the car out. Sundays, Powell guessed.
“I can drive it,” he said. “It’s not so different from the car I learned on.”
Tovey, it seemed, had heard nothing in his voice, neither hesitation nor doubt. He nodded, satisfied, and walked again briskly ahead, crossing in front of a city bus, leaving so little leeway that Isobel and Powell were forcibly separated from him, left to scuttle back to the curb. Before they’d caught up, Tovey had got inside, and propped himself against the passenger door, an ankle on his knee. He twirled his hand in the air.
“Get in, Bel. Kenzie’s driving.”
With three of them sharing the seat, Powell found himself jammed tight against Isobel. He hoped he didn’t stink too much. The hamburger she’d bought for Rodhl―asked the waitress to wrap it up, and now held a paper bundle on her lap, along with a bottle of root beer―smelled like ketchup and onions. Tovey’s after-shave smelled like wintergreen. Powell thought he was picking up also, despite the open windows, traces of an undercurrent. But the rule…the one that said you couldn’t tell these things about yourself, held true. He’d been in the army, and he knew it. Isobel’s tolerance might be only for Tovey’s sake.
“I came out with the Chief last time,” Powell said to her, keeping his eyes on the Canal Street traffic, waiting for an opening. “I’m not sure where I’m going.”
“Just head out Canal Street.”
He heard Tovey’s “uh, huh” cut in from the background. Isobel shifted her knees. “When you get to the edge of town, it turns into route seven. You don’t do anything…”
“When I see the sign come up for Mill Road, I’ll holler at you,” Tovey interrupted.
Powell drove, at a grandmotherly pace, and thought about Lloyd Guy’s grapevine. Unless Guy had caught the bus out of town himself, he would certainly know by now what they were up to. But maybe…
He realized he’d formed a jealous impression of Tovey. He looked across the seat. Isobel, her arms folded around the things she carried, cocked her head at him. Tovey, keeping his watch on the sign-posts, noticed this movement.
“Eyes on the road, Kenzie,” he said. “Trust me.”
Tovey was dapper, his speech jaunty, he got around in a hurry…none of which qualities made Powell trust him. These things by themselves, though, didn’t account for his notion that Tovey was from someplace else. The Big Chief knew who belonged here. He hadn’t known about Isobel being here. But Tovey was known to the old lady, trusted by Mrs. Drybrook…well enough she’d let him inside her house, given him the car. Maybe she was his granny. The two years Powell had spent hoboing, moving from town to town, had colored his point of view, he guessed. Because she’d spoken to him at all, already he’d gone soft on Isobel.
But he might settle in a small city like this one.
You could feel safe in a place this size; you didn’t exhaust your possibilities too quickly. Everyone was charitable, “community-minded”—this phrase from the county agent who’d tipped Powell a fifty-cent piece after letting him out downtown. But even the charitable didn’t want the same face turning up over and over, just mooching; letting the Baptists, the Methodists, the Unitarians, feed you, not letting them save you. They wanted to help a man onto his feet. He heard these words all the time. People tried to find work for Powell, who looked capable of working.
He had planned to make his proposition to Lloyd Guy. Now first he would have to talk to Tovey and Isobel.
Of course he had never known who the man at the opera was.
He had been fourteen years old; he would not have turned to look. They might believe him eavesdropping, suppose this boy to disapprove of their conversation…grow angry, make complaint. And who was Heinz to disapprove of others, or call attention to himself in any way? The opera had been his haven. He made himself small there in his seat, and hoped never to offend. The street car, coming home, had been lonely and crowded.
But the man had become his bête noire. He had raised so many questions, those Rohdl had asked himself a thousand times.
You have been taught how to behave. It is your wish to obey, to be thought good. You know what you have done is not right. You huddle in a house with no roof; and yet, when you fear your bizarre acts have been seen, you seek to disguise yourselves, to frighten away scrutiny by raising phantoms. If they could be content with mere social approval, these mystifications would not attract them. They would—why would they not, such powerful men?—supersede God, put themselves in his place, rather than fear He would find them out and condemn them.
They had buried their secrets at the mill, and Rohdl had been witness. Carted away in the aftermath were nearly all the proofs, and little might be rooted up today, but the house…he believed they still did things at the house. Mr. Guy had visited…Rohdl never knew what day it was…with his friend, who wore the suit, pale grey, hanging open, shirt buttons straining. And the hat. Was it possible, Rohdl had wondered, noticing these things that made the man disagreeable to him, to have a hat fit so badly? Had he stolen it? This friend of Mr. Guy’s had said, well within earshot, “But your pal over there used to be some kind of scientist. I mean, he’s smart. You have to stay on your toes, Guy. You get a smart loony, it could all be an act.”
And, as Rohdl had supposed, this ostentation had been in its own right an act. They could have said these same things in the car, but Rohdl would not have heard. Himself, he could not be bothered deceiving people. But how did he know whether the things he thought of, he did not sometimes speak aloud? Mr. Guy had brought another vagrant, before he had brought Powell Kenzie. That one had not wished to spend the night.
Continued from “spend the night”
“Mill Road,” Tovey said. Powell put his hand out the window. Mill Road began where it met route seven; he could turn in only one direction, and already, Powell could see the water tower, and the glazed blocks of the mill’s broken walls.
Tovey was rooting in a pouch of tobacco. “You’re gonna kill the engine, slowing down like that.”
Remembering Guy’s Ford going up the driveway, Powell figured Tovey had foreseen the future. If he thought this old Buick could make it through the mud pits, he’d have to change places with Powell and drive it himself. And if Guy was sitting up there waiting for them, Tovey would be robbed of whatever story he’d meant to foist on Powell, when first he had maneuvered him behind the wheel.
But he wanted to trust Isobel. He could at least ask. “Mrs. Drybrook has a couple of people, doesn’t she, besides Lloyd Guy, working up there?”
“None of those people work for the old lady,” Tovey answered. “Keep going, keep going.”
Powell slowed along the gate that barred entry to the mill. Close by here, the fence was almost down, one post bent near the base, links sagging into weeds. Through some overzealousness, the fence-top round the ruin, like that of an electric plant, had been ringed in barbed wire. But a vehicle must have veered from the road; now anyone might climb over, the warning sign stoved in at the center, no longer legible, and the gate, with its rusted heavy chain and padlock, meaning nothing.
He considered Tovey’s words. Tovey had said, “none of those people”, so he did not count himself among them…but did he, in some respect, work for the old lady?
“Then who,” asked Powell, “do Lloyd Guy and the others get their paychecks from?”
“The trust,” Isobel told him. “But Mrs. Drybrook is a trustee. It was Mrs. Drybrook herself hired Guy.”
Powell, having barely accelerated, saw the tree he’d been watching for. The split trunk looked dead…still, one living branch clawed the sky and dripped with pink flowers. Just here was the way up the hill; he could see a corner of the house exposed. He saw rays of sunlight cut the missing mortar of the chimney’s bricks.
“What are you doing?” Tovey smacked his hand against the dash. “Keep going!”
“This isn’t the driveway?”
“Jeez, Kenzie, you wanna take this car up the driveway?”
Now Powell was worried. He leaned over to look out the window, back down the road. The car swerved, and Tovey blew air through his teeth. But Isobel laughed. “I don’t know where we’re going either.”
“If Mother Hubbard wants to give it some gas, you’ll see in a minute.”
Beyond the Drybrook drive, Mill Road curved, the berm undercut by a wide ditch. A stand of once-pollarded apple trees cankered together with the remains of a rail fence; the whole mess pitched over a brook, and seemed only, for springing off wild new shoots, to poise unfallen. Once Powell had navigated this curve, he saw an old barn, dark-timbered, its patch of grass in use as a turnaround, mashed into circling tracks.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Tovey said. “Only don’t be a dolt, Kenzie. Pull up a ways, and back ’er in.”
Powell was the last to leave his seat. Before he could bring the car to a full stop, Tovey had popped his door and jumped. Isobel, the sardine-can pressure suddenly released, steadied herself with a hand on Powell’s shoulder. She slid out, thudded the passenger door, and looked across at him.
“Wait.” He rested his hands on the warm hood. He raised his voice. “Listen.” Tovey, already passing the barn, and making to strike off, paused without turning.
“The way I see it,” Powell told him, “the trust pays three people to look after this place.” He let this be a question. Hands in his jacket pockets, Tovey jerked his head aside, spat his tobacco, walked back and faced Powell.
“You see it that way.”
“Why would they not have a tenant?”
“Think I didn’t ask the old lady the same thing? Are you a man with a plan, Kenzie?”
“He thinks,” Isobel said, “that we ought to take charge ourselves.”
She made it sound as though, in some private conversation, the two of them had discussed this. Powell didn’t want the enmity of Dennis Tovey. “Sometimes, though,” he elaborated, not looking at her, “people get an idea in their head, and they just can’t see past it. Mrs. Drybrook might own property…”
He kept his back to her. He appreciated she might have meant for him to laugh. He could not place himself at odds with these two, when he needed their collaboration. Powell spoke only to Tovey. “So maybe she figures renters are too much trouble. What I’m talking about, though, is a fair exchange. It’s not the kind of thing,” he added, seeing Tovey crouch suddenly, and fiddle with a shoestring, “you can prove in a week. Being good as your word, I mean. It might take three or four months.”
“Well, what kind of fair exchange…” Tovey stood, and walked to the rear of the car. He bent to examine, as it seemed to Powell, the back tire on the driver’s side. He shot a look behind him, at the double doors of the barn. These were not fully closed.
“…are you gonna use to bribe Lloyd Guy?”
He gave no emphasis to this, other than to rise, and fix Powell with a frank, direct stare. Isobel had slipped away. Tovey, moving towards the barn, and dropping one conversational shoe after the other, had induced Powell to change his position. She’d left, he thought, when her husband’s crouch had first distracted his attention. If she’d been picking his pocket, the dodge might have made sense, but Powell’s pockets were empty.
“Think about it, Tovey,” he urged. “Guy has nothing to lose, does he? He’s the only one who knows what goes on out here. Suppose it’s winter, and he’d just as soon stay home? He gets paid anyway, and he knows the place is looked after. Same deal with the others. They could just hire out their time on another job. Why wouldn’t they like the idea?”
“Yeah.” Tovey, struck by a serious consideration, turned his face away from Powell’s. “I don’t know what the trust pays the lady who cleans. They got a handyman…”
The voice was unfamiliar. The man, leading the way around the side of the barn, trailed by Rohdl and Isobel―Rohdl carrying his bottle of root beer―wore vivid white, a shirt that at each button gapped across his gut. His double-breasted jacket flapped its lapels when he moved his arms. A small hat perched high on an egg-shaped head, and a nasal discourse emanated between jowls that framed the mouth as the jacket framed the gut.
“They used to, in the old days, keep the buggy and the horses down here by the road. When snow piled high, there’d be no getting up or down the hill. So, as the old story has it, all the Drybrooks from that time were gone off to church. Storm blew in fierce. Caught ’em by surprise on the way back…” He had by this time walked to a standstill, lodging himself close to Powell.
Rohdl, following this narrative with a rapt involvement, stared at the man’s face. Isobel laid a palm on the car’s hood.
“Powell, give me a hand up.”
“They got themselves out of the buggy. On the hilltop, every lantern was lit to guide the way. The wind drove the snow so powerfully…well, you see the barn there, Mr. Kenzie, not four feet away from you?”
Powell, half-listening, was startled. He looked into the stranger’s expectant eyes, and said, “You mean…the blizzard was blowing so hard they couldn’t see the barn, from as close as I’m standing?”
“Exactly what I’m saying. The buggy driver, an old servant, took the lead, and Papa Drybrook followed behind. Papa told ’em, ‘Everyone hold hands,’ and they inched along, Mr. Kenzie. That little glowing patch of light from the house seemed like it was always ahead and above, and never any closer.”
Isobel crossed her arms at this juncture, the hint of her ironic smile appearing at one corner of her mouth. But Rohdl repeated the man’s words.
“Never any closer.”
“Well.” The stranger seemed to insist on making Powell his chief auditor. Powell felt obligated to listen, polite-faced…but he believed he’d seen Tovey backing away.
Tovey had had some scheme coming out here to begin with.
“At long last, after a passage of time they had no way of measuring, they reached the house. And what do you think? The two servants they’d left to look after things…”
The tenor of his voice did not change, but a certain omniscient glow suffused his eyes, and still he looked into Powell’s.
“…brought blankets and stoked up the fire. Pretty soon, after the excitement died down, they made a terrible discovery.”
“I suppose they made two terrible discoveries,” Isobel said.
“The youngest Drybrook daughter, thought to be the beauty of the county, betrothed, Mr. Kenzie, to be married that spring, had become separated from her family somewhere on the hillside. They hadn’t known. The blizzard raged far too dangerously now to send a party out to search for her. All winter, the snow remained on the ground. You can well imagine the stricken household. Spring would come, and they knew what it would reveal to them.”
Rohdl, exercising an internal logic, handed his empty bottle to Isobel. He left them, walking with his head raised, his vision fixed on the contours of the hill, as it rose on the other side of the barn. Isobel shrugged, and tossed the bottle through the car’s open window. Powell was embarrassed. The stranger had got a long friendly ways into the conversation.
“Mister,” he said, “I guess I don’t know your name.”
“No, that wouldn’t be likely,” the man agreed. “I was gonna tell you the rest of the story. Here’s Mr. Rohdl.” Rohdl walked back, tapped Powell on the elbow, and beckoned. “You, Mr. Kenzie, and you, miss.” He gestured to Isobel, not touching her; she slid to earth, and they followed, moving at first parallel to Mill Road, about twenty feet back towards the highway. A rivulet that ran from the hilltop met the ditch here; it had carved a channel too deep to cross.
“You see the little stream. Easily someone might lose her footing.” Rohdl pointed uphill, and they saw where the depression marked the water’s passage, shallower at the summit, vanishing there in brambles.
“But, of course, they knew to avoid that danger,” Rohdl went on. “You see the path they would follow.” The footpath, no doubt traipsed by members of the Drybrook family countless times, had not yet been erased, for being overrun with dandelions and the feathery seed heads of early grass.
“But you see there is an outcrop of rock, the path is narrow. I say they were stopped right there, confused to find their way. For a moment, they dropped their hands. In the wind, no one could speak to be heard. So one took up the hand again that had been hers, and thought it was. This was how it happened. And see…” Again he walked ahead, eager. Powell, having now a broader view of the property, looked for a sign of Tovey. Mournful black windows stared at nothing from the house above, and the hillside, green and wild, seemed as abandoned as though they themselves were not there.
“…here,” Rohdl said. They stood by a shelf of layered, lichened rock.
“She was lost. The snow had made it all seem smooth and level, but when her foot came down, just over the edge, she sank.” Isobel completed Rohdl’s account. “It’s just that deep here. If she struggled, she’d have mired in further.”
“Yes,” said Rohdl. “Well, that is what I thought. There is a science to the lay of the land.”
Isobel, at the sound of jingling coins or keys, and breathing of exertion, turned to look down the way they’d come. Uninvited by Rohdl, briefly reticent, the stranger now climbed the hill to join them.
“And is this,” she called to him, “where they see the ghost?”
“Round about the property, ma’am,” he answered, and took up his story as though there’d been no interruption. “No one can ever say…what the Drybrooks saw…when they still lived up here.” He slowed to a sauntering pace until he’d got himself beside her. “They never liked the story. And they didn’t used to run shifts at the mill, not ’til wartime. They didn’t have a lot of folks out this way, after dark.
“It was Alfin Doyle, who patrolled the mill nights…I guess he worked there up to ’42, when Mr. Drybrook contracted with the government. Well, you know that yourself, ma’am.”
“Alfin Doyle was my grandfather, sir. Indeed.” She stopped, and gave him the steady look she’d given Lloyd Guy. The stranger moved on, ahead of her up the hill. Elevated in this way, he was far taller. But his manner was no less affable. “Mr. Doyle—and he was known for it about the town—said he had seen the ghost many times.”
“I know it,” Isobel said. “That they treated my grandfather like an old fathead. I would never myself have asked him. You be as free with your story as you like, Mr. Summers, and don’t expect me to have heard it.”
“You will be figuring, ma’am…” A gust of wind billowed up his jacket. He resembled a preacher, his small flock with upturned faces waiting for him to speak. But Summers himself waited, while the rumbling of a big engine, a truck coming suddenly over the rise of the road, subsided. He went on.
“…some local kids were playing pranks on the old watchman. Well, they may have been. I’ll tell you how he described the ghost to me.”
“You could call that a mixed blessing, Mr. Doyle,” Summers prompted. Doyle had been employed at the mill since the year 1900. Summers guessed he saw Doyle’s point. They had bought him off, effectively―but no one could call it an early retirement. “Could you turn that fan off? I want to be sure I’m hearing you.”
Doyle hadn’t replied, and Summers, gut mounding to the height of his nose as he sprawled in the visitor’s chair, wasn’t here to harry the old man. Doyle edged round the corner of the desk. When the fan completed a full oscillation to the right, and came back centering itself, he hit the switch. The desk belonged to Mr. Drybrook. Doyle only sat nights in this shed that served as Drybook’s private office.
“I may not understand you, sir,” Doyle said, resuming his seat and wheeling round. “But if you mean being run out of my job is better than being frightened out of my wits…well, it may be so.”
“But, she isn’t so scary, is she? Drybrook told me you had seen her a few times. Your wits seem all right to me.”
“I might have mentioned to you, Mr. Summers, that I have been here more than forty years. When I began, we worked six days a week, Sundays off. And times the mill was closed…that was January to March…off altogether. Think of that, no brass unless you’d saved it! I came to America on Mr. Drybrook’s guarantee of my employment. And you know, do you, Old Drybrook was brother to the one they tell the story about. It was in ’96 Lettie died. A terrible thing, that was…and not so old and forgotten as all that seems to the young. But if she’d been restless, she might have walked long since.
“Now…what have I seen? Mr. Summers, it would take a deal of costumery and a dark night, and me the worse for drink, if I were to be fooled so, by a prankster.
“I see a fog…I have only ever seen her in the fog. And against this mist, she seems…well, it’s more than I can explain. I feel a gripping in my mind, as though something has stopped my senses, and I see the fog pull itself into a picture, grown terribly white and clear in the image of a woman. The face will not stay. I mean, as best I can describe it, sir, she has eyes and a mouth, but the features shift about so, I can’t see them proper. And then I am no longer compelled to look, and she has vanished.” Doyle leaned to the side, and looked at Summers. Summers’s posture remained languid.
“Would you be disappointed,” he said, and at last pushed himself upright, reaching from his chair to the doorknob, employing this as a fulcrum, “if we caught someone?”
“Disappointed to find there is no ghost? Well, she may be there, no minding what our young hooligans get up to. But it’s more than I understand myself, how a thing like it might be done. And what do you think, Mr. Summers?”
“Mr. Doyle, we’re at war now,” Summers told him. “I don’t think anything. They send me down to ask questions, and I go back and tell ’em what I’ve learned.”
Continued from “what I’ve learned”
Powell felt that, in some way, he had himself been fogged. He turned, and from this vantage saw what was left of the mill. The intact walls were only a few feet high; rooms once beneath the main floor contours now exposed, bulldozed full of rubble. Leveled off for safety’s sake, he supposed. Littering every square foot was glass—myriad glints of it, twinkling under the bright sky. He hadn’t at ground level had the perspective to see the ruin’s scope. The mill must have been illuminated once by skylights, by hundreds of windowpanes high above the workfloor. And these had not been shattered, but fragmented. He’d imagined some accident long ago, in the last century.
“You said they were running shifts during the war?”
“It wasn’t Doyle alone who saw her,” Summers answered him. “Now when they started doing the special work here, they retired most of the hands. Others they moved down to New London, different mill down there Mr. Drybrook owned. But some of the folks who worked the second shift here, the ones who had to leave after dark―because you remember, they had the blackout in those days…they got spooked. We had quite a few sightings for a while.”
“But—” Powell was more interested in the accident than the ghost. “What happened? How did it burn down?”
Summers shook his head. “Blew up.”
“I hope no one…”
He’d been on the verge of a conventional remark. But how tidily arranged the sparkling wreckage was….how densely packed and flush the filled chambers were; how devoid, how sanitized, how stripped clean was the entire site, of any debris much larger than a splinter of glass. The event had been catastrophic. The special work had been something other than the finishing of cloth. He supposed it would be naïve to hope no one had been hurt.
“Hey there, Summers!” Lloyd Guy called out.
Summers put up a hand to shade his eyes, knocking back the small hat on his head, and lifted his gaze to the summit like a forest ranger spotting a wisp of smoke. Powell watched the Big Chief descend at a jog to a little concrete wall that marked the border of the lawn. The wall had split under pressure of slumping earth; the taller half, now tilting towards the road, had become the lower half. With no great alacrity, Guy moved sideways to the place this dovetailed into the bramble patch; balancing himself, arms crooked at the elbows. Where the drop was no more than a foot or so, he put a leg over.
“Where’d you come across them cockleburs?”
“Well, sir. If you’re meaning Mr. Kenzie and Miss Gilshannon, they came out in a car. Very distinctive car. You may want to have a look at it, Mr. Guy, out of curiosity.”
“Oh!” Isobel swung round, and with an impatient fling of the hand, said, “You know Tovey will have driven it off. Mr. Summers, you must have seen him pulling the car away, when the truck went by just now.”
“Miss Gilshannon. I’ve learned a thing or two.” He pursed his mouth and swung his arms; at last, deprived of some confrontational posture he would normally have assumed, had he not been crowded on the path by Summers, Guy hooked his thumbs into his belt. “You,” he said, “been living up at Concord. You stayed down here with your grandfather one time, but he’s dead now.”
“That’s true,” she said, unmoved. “But you forget my husband.”
“Shoot,” Guy said, “as far as Toveys go, there’s three or four named Dennis. Which one is supposed to be the stepson?”
“Well, it can’t be my granddad’s crony! Why should I doubt my husband? What’s it got to do with me, if she’ll give him money when he asks?”
“Ma’am,” Summers said, “I had a conversation with Mr. Guy, as he was driving me out here. I came out, of course, on a job of my own…I wonder if you’ve heard a weather report today?” Summers stepped down the hill, trialed a foot on the cut above the streambed, tilting his shoe and for an instant poising his weight there. This maneuver, watched keenly by Rohdl, brought him past Powell and Isobel, and permitted Summers a companionable hand on Rohdl’s shoulder.
“Heavy fog in the morning. I was concerned about our friend here, as I know you are yourself, ma’am, being kind enough to’ve brought him that sandwich from the café. A conversation,” Summers went on. “Mr. Guy worries about this place. Now I will suppose, ma’am, that your husband worries too. On behalf of his relative. I don’t think you and I, and Mr. Guy, disagree.”
Fog, Powell thought. Heavy fog rolling in, sometime during the night.
He heard Summers telling Isobel she would have to ride with them; Guy would drive them all back to town. He heard Guy, far ahead now, snort—his answer or opinion, and a noise distinct from his climbing grunts and exhalations. Powell had fallen far behind. He had stopped moving and needed to make himself go up to the house. He heard Rohdl raise an objection, and Summers say, “This place has a screen porch, open on three sides. You won’t feel closed in there, sir.”
“Get off that stoop or go inside.”
Yes, the door would be unlocked. Powell tried to make amends for being slow…a show of helpfulness. He pushed the door wide, resting his hand on the knob. Guy, carrying in blankets from the Ford, bumped side to side, shoving a hip at him. He stared back at Powell in disbelief.
“Goddamn! Get out of the way when I tell you.” He heaved the blankets to the floor. “You got runnin’ water. Get yourself cleaned up. No electric, remember.”
Isobel slipped through. “Myself, I don’t like the look of it.”
She said this, after casting an eye over the stove, the refrigerator, the cabinets, and the linoleum. But when she looked at Powell, she held his eyes, steady. He fancied he heard her say it, change your mind. He didn’t like the look of things either, but couldn’t think for himself until they’d left him alone.
“Mr. Guy asked me to bring this in,” she told Powell. She lifted a paper bag with its top rolled over, a gesture given to the Chief as an ironic salute. She then set the bag on the counter, and removed from it two bottles of Coca-Cola, two tins of Vienna sausages, two Hershey bars, and a box of saltines.
“You get on back to the car,” Guy said, and followed her to the door; but here he paused, turning to Powell, and added, “I’ll stop by at the usual time tomorrow and see if you been earnin’ your keep.”
Powell tested the handle of the kitchen faucet and jumped as water burst out spitting, like a phantom cat. The water sputtered for a few seconds, ran, but weakly, its color rusty brown. He guessed he shouldn’t have tried the hot. The boiler wasn’t going, so the cleaners would have been using cold. He turned the other handle, and from this, water a shade closer to yellow flowed quietly and thinly.
Powell wondered now how many daylight hours he had left. He once had owned a watch, but for the sake of eating lunch had pawned it. The view from the window over the sink was three-quarters blocked by tree limbs; the sky he saw through these was pale, still blue. The pattern of shadows cast on the ground below, interlocking branches and fluttering leaves, revealed nothing to Powell.
It is a prisoner’s duty to escape. This, he remembered, and a rule for reckoning the hour by the angle of the sun…that there was a rule. Some rhyme about berries, red and blue. He decided to explore upstairs.
From the top of the staircase, he could count five closed doors, not caring at first glance about the narrowest of these. He thought again. Out of curiosity he crossed the landing and opened the cupboard, finding only empty shelves. He peered into corners, crouched to the floor, but nothing had been dropped, nothing overlooked that might give character to the Drybrooks who’d lived here.
The adjacent bedroom had bare floors, three uncurtained windows, pink papered walls…and a pleasing view, here at the front of the house. Through the side window, he could just make out the river. It was spreading over its banks, mud-brown, placid, mirroring the sky. And he could hear the sound of a motor. He hurried to another window, where he caught sight of a red car cresting the rise on route seven.
On the strength of this link to reassuring civilization, Powell made up his mind that, never mind pink, he would pick this room. He crossed the hall, pushed the opposite door open; after putting his head into each room along the way, he stopped in the bathroom. The toilet burbled; Powell waited, and after an interval, took the lid off the tank to jiggle chain and stopper.
Another flight of stairs led from the second to the attic story. He hated going up, but common sense told him to get a picture of it. It would be better, when he started hearing noises after dark, to know the rooms were empty. Powell came to another landing, another five closed doors. He didn’t know why the house was shut up like this. Probably Mrs. Drybrook, else the handyman, had an idea about saving heat in the winter…but it made the place gloomy and secretive, and Powell preferred doors standing open.
Lloyd Guy, he thought, hadn’t bothered. Maybe with the attic he never did. Powell would have heard him go up a second flight of stairs…besides, Guy hadn’t been away long enough. Here were four bedrooms, lit by dormer windows, clean swept, square in shape, utterly unfurnished. He saw no pools of shadow, no nests of bats, a modicum only of cobwebs, collected around the window frames.
He found nothing in the attic story of interest other than a cistern, a sizable wooden box occupying the floor of what otherwise was the cupboard above the one below. Still in use, as he guessed. The city would never run water pipes out this far.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Summers said, “you’re welcome to the bedroom. It might get a little chilly out here.”
Rohdl, having agreed to Summers’s proposal, afterwards had left all, choice and speech alike, to his host.
Having noted the age of the lock assemblies, front and back, Summers since moving in hadn’t bothered using them―he had brought nothing with him but a change of clothes, shirt and slacks tailored to a fat man, packed in his cardboard suitcase.
“Sure, go on in, see what you think.”
For saying this, he’d needed to propel Rohdl indoors, with a mild pressure on the elbow. Right away the chemist crouched near the baseboard, examining a cloth-wrapped electric conduit that projected from the wall.
“Now, what is the meaning of this?” he asked. Summers shrugged. The house belonged to Lloyd Guy. Rohdl next, following daylight, went out through the kitchen, and came to a standstill on the porch Summers had mentioned. Someone, so it appeared, had punched a fist through the rusty screen before trying the latch: the upper panel was torn from its frame. Rohdl fingered this…his fingers crumbled away the wire, and his face became ruminative.
At last he stepped outside. Summers watched him lower a foot to a concrete slab; this on a slow journey having been carried adrift, time and erosion parting it from the threshold. Brown water lapped the sodden lawn, and rippled at times the wind gusted; the river’s edge could be descried only by the stronger flow of current seen beyond a line of young trees. This flooding, here in the low part of town, was why Guy had done nothing with the empty lot next door. But all the while he and Summers had stood in the open, discussing business, circling each other in a desultory way, he’d watched Guy stoop, pick up a crushed tin can, a shoe, a plastic flower pot, hurl each into the flow of water.
The aluminum glider would be iffy for sleeping, Summers thought.
“You have a bad chest, don’t you, Mr. Rohdl? Now, you decide, sir…” He tried persuasion one more time. The floodwaters, the unclean smell of them, had Summers thinking of other Lloyd Guys, making their dispositions along the watershed; of decay, and impermanent things people built.
“I wish never to be shut in a room,” Rohdl answered.
His danger was that he would fail to see something. And how could you know if you had failed to see something?
He started, and pitched the cigarette into the river. They relieved each other silently. Breedman, with his streaming face, whispered this time, “Kenzie. Rot in hell.” He felt frozen with the same indecision, could not scrabble from one hole to another, even as the cellar air quivered. He was trying to think.
Guy’s blanket, which seemed to have straight-jacketed him, smelled like straw. He writhed in its folds, freed one arm and sat up. Neither of Guy’s blankets had proved especially clean. Now Powell’s wet hair had picked up their barnlike odor. He was enveloped in this, and the powdery scent of soap flakes he’d found under the kitchen sink. He was full awake. He was almost heartbroken. He saw a gentle light like that of dawn, but fading. Dusk, rather, grey and cold. For a few minutes more, light glowed outside the room’s windows. The sky went dark, and the night had just begun.
And Powell remembered the shirt he’d washed in his bathwater, thinking he’d hit on a good idea. It was still out there. A single clothespin, forgotten on the line, clipped it between two rusted crosses on the back lawn. Maybe his shirt would be dry by morning. Maybe he would find a dew-drenched mess fallen to the ground.
How long had the house been empty? Powell had been puzzling on this, and then he’d gone off sleeping. The way Summers told the story, old Mrs. Drybrook might have lived here during the war…he hadn’t talked about the son, Tovey’s stepfather. Powell, although he knew the scenario to be pure invention, furnished the dining room with a table, placed Drybrook and his white-haired mother together at the kitchen end. Ciphers not speaking, unhappy with each other. The wife (he saw Isobel, and knew this untenable; he covered her face with the waitress’s, from the Crown) would be seated at the far end, nearer the front door, a directive in symbolic language: Go, interloper. Next to her, little unloveable Dennis. Was it guilt Tovey employed now, to have his way with Mrs. Drybrook? Were the others all dead? And would Isobel come back, tomorrow, that he could ask her?
Powell became aware of how alone he was here, how dark it was. He wanted the window open…just to hear a car pass by on the road would steady his nerves. As yet, of Summers’s fog, he could see only a stray wisp that hugged the roadside ditch. The window took jamming high in its frame before it would stick, and Powell, leaning out, breathing moist air, the woodland scent of a spring night, feared it would crash onto his shoulders.
Summers had been so intent on telling his story to Powell in particular. He thought about Guy’s bumping floorboard. What a sudden inspiration, asking him to stay the night here. And Tovey, at large with the car, might turn up anyplace. Though he reminded himself of all these things, Powell still felt leery of Lettie Drybrook. He repositioned the blanket he was using for a pillow; in the other, he wrapped himself again, making a hood of it over his head, and laid back down.
The equation was irrational. He had allowed himself to be persuaded, and Rohdl no longer understood…
He could not now make these same representations to himself and come to a sane conclusion. When had it ever seemed to be so? He had been a hated child. He had been a gifted chemist. He did not count himself as having loved anyone, but he had shared in deprivation…he had been part of a circle. Speak to me the name of a place, and my mind’s eye sees what your eyes have seen. Say a word that only you and I know…
But his old friends would call him a liar, if he told them he’d left believing that the work would save them all. In expiation, Rohdl could say only that he had not told the lie; the lie had been told to him.
Still, how could it make a difference? He had never been close to as many as twenty or thirty people. What struck Rohdl was that the question could not be one of valuing a life against another life. That distinction would be irrational.
He sat on the glider. A corner streetlamp made of the river fog a slow moving picture. He did not value his own life. He waited only to be shown what was expected of him, now.
Beauty crossed the river. She was whiter than the yellow glow of the lamp or the churning mist from which she emerged. Her pallor was that of ice-bound death, and for Rohdl, her eyes did not shift. She might have borne him some compassion. He was small and dark and had always been terribly isolated. Yet in her last hours, Beauty had known this loneliness too. And though her chill withered and dispelled the halo of fog that surrounded her, the others who followed―the ribs, the skull with its single eye, the smoldering arms with their curled, clutching fingers―burned with a green, scintillating fire.
Continued from “scintillating fire”
They have gone before,
Who falter on this narrow span,
Made treacherous by blood and tears.
Unreconciled in wordless horror;
Their ranks unceasing none return,
But fall into the tomb and claw at air,
With an endless echo of despair.
Powell was new. He didn’t know the sound of a buzz bomb. He had been about to get up, when Breedman put a hand on the back of his head, pushed his face in the mud, and held him there.
“We gotta find out,” Breedman said, “if you’re just plain stupid, or if you’re dangerous stupid. Or if your buddy can learn you to keep an eye out.”
Breedman, Powell’s buddy, kept an eye out; if ever Powell were about to put a foot wrong, Breedman was there to trip him up first. So Powell could be taught a lesson.
“If I was a snake,” Breedman liked to say, “I’d a bit you.”
But this sensation that had shocked Powell awake, that had gripped the back of his head and drilled in with a pulse indistinguishable from sound, might have been the sustained vibrating note of a stringed instrument, or sunlight on water shimmering to an intolerable pitch of white light, shattered by the splash of a plummeting stone. His heart raced. He rolled onto his knees and staggered up, dragging the blanket around his ankles, eyes adjusting. Powell had already thought of this possibility, that a change of temperature during the night might cause the window to fall. He hadn’t wanted Guy to have another broken thing to hold against him. Uneasy about it, he had been unable to let himself sleep. He wouldn’t have imagined closing the window.
Beyond intact glass was at last daylight…and in every low-lying place, fog. There was sunlight as well, that yellowed the fog’s upper billows. It might all burn off in an hour or two. He tried—as to reject panic he’d once been instructed—to count his breaths. He was still keyed up by the attack.
And something hummed in the kitchen, loud enough that Powell could hear from the top of the stairs. Amazed, he raced down and reached for the switch by the front door, seeing in the globe above the foyer cobwebs and the carcasses of moths thrown into sudden illumination. He ran again, down the little passage to the kitchen. The refrigerator buzzed industriously, and when Powell thrust his hand all the way to the back, he could feel a flow of cooling air. He picked up his jacket, that he’d hooked by the back door, and put it on over his undershirt.
That the assault had come at the same moment they’d turned on the power, he didn’t doubt. He was skeptical the phenomena could be related.
The Germans had roadblocks of their own. They knew there would be lookouts posted along the way. If they meant to run the roadblock, they’d create a diversion first. A squadron of bombers, a barrage of heavy mortar. Then, from some unexpected quarter, the tanks would burst from cover. Breedman had impressed it on Powell: “Whatever you think is happening, that ain’t what’s happening.” Powell had begun to fantasize about breaking cover himself, drawing a bullet to end the odium. He was the wrong man for responsibility. He thought they ought to have realized. But the blank windows, some few with glass shards reflecting still reflections of others, might have concealed snipers, or saboteurs, or no one.
He got derailed looking for a toothbrush, not prepared to ask for help. Cradling his razor, soap, and comb, Powell stepped back, and read the sign hanging from a string above the aisle: “Special Prices for Mother’s Day”. Last year, and the year before, he’d forgotten the holiday existed. Thinking of it, he couldn’t recall where he’d been, exactly. May of ’45, of course, he remembered―that was a big time. His mother had died a month earlier, and his uncle, who never put words on paper, had been forced to write it in a letter. Powell had been named after his uncle; the honor had bred no affection between them. Uncle Powell’s character was marked out in the sentiments he could not commit to record.
Well, this won’t be a surprise to you. Your mother has gone away home. It was peaceful.
The letter bore no salutation, and no closing. Powell imagined what it would cost his uncle to call him “dear”—to mail off documented proof that he had done so. Following the terse paragraph, his uncle had put down, “Powell Kenzie” in pencil, and, an afterthought, the date. The effect, to Powell’s eyes, was a little surreal. Uncle Powell had not written “yours”…truly, sincerely, respectfully, in condolence. Your loving uncle. Powell might have saved the letter; it made him laugh. But he’d lost it. Somehow, he’d come back from Europe without souvenirs. He supposed, if he’d go down to Little Rock, he could claim the house by rights. His uncle might have a raft of people under the roof by now.
Lloyd Guy had let himself in the front door, and walked through the downstairs rooms, craning his neck towards each empty corner. Then grown jaded to his own sly theatrics, Guy shrugged.
“Looks like you ain’t been raisin’ hell in here. That’s somethin’. All right, we’re goin’.”
He’d dug in his pocket and handed Powell some folded bills wrapped around a few coins. Six dollars and forty-three cents. He didn’t know how Guy had calculated the eccentric sum. If he got paid as much as six dollars a day, he’d feel like a rich man. He would be wise, though, to consider this a one-time deal.
Guy pulled into the parking lot of Bonhof’s drugstore, and showing Powell one finger at a time, counted off a shopping list. “You payin’ attention? Mrs. Drybrook wants to have a look at you in person. I got no comment on that.”
Powell eyed a display of bud vases. They were ceramic, about four inches high, a choice of pink, yellow, or blue, decorated in gilt with praying hands poised over a bible, and each holding a small plastic rose, crafted to look as though its petals had just begun to open. He turned one over, pursed his lips, but didn’t whistle aloud. A dollar. Powell was determined to pick up another Coke and Hershey bar. He could afford that. But he could afford this too. It seemed like manners to Powell, to enter Mrs. Drybrook’s house with a gift. She might be about to offer him a job.
“I can put that in a box for you,” the old man at the cash register told him. He lifted the vase, tilted it and looked at its underside. “You don’t want the sticker, do you?” He didn’t wait for Powell’s decision on either of these questions, but rooted under the counter with one hand, while with a fingernail picking at the sticker; then absently wiping bits of it on the front of his apron. Bonhof had already rung up Powell’s personal things, and had dropped them, one by one, into an open paper bag. He did not, it seemed, like the looks of Powell. He kept his head lowered and his words were addressed to the hands Powell rested on the counter. Powell talked to the three moles on Bonhof’s pink scalp. He didn’t like the look of these, either.
“Sir,” he said, “where’s your washroom?” The druggist hesitated. Powell gathered up his bag. He was paying for his purchases, and he was entitled to use them.
The box, that Bonhof in haste began to pack, was pretty, foil with a clear celluloid top.
“You got something for your mother. You figure you’ll go home and see her. Is that right?” He met Powell’s eyes this time, and relenting, pointed. Not far from the counter was an alcove, and a sign: “Restrooms”.
“Thought you headed out the back way.” Guy ignored Powell’s clean-shaved face for a minute, then tossed his Sentinel onto the rear seat. Powell hadn’t thought about something to read, of how he would spend his dull evenings. He lacked courage to ask Guy if he could have the paper. Balancing his open bottle, he rummaged in his bag. Guy backed the car out of its space, and shot Powell a disgusted look. While in self-consciousness Powell washed his chocolate down, Guy jerked the car onto Canal Street.
“Mrs. Drybrook’s place is one street over. In no more’n twenty minutes, you gon’ be eatin’ lunch.”
She wore a black cardigan and a floral shift. These things, to Powell’s eyes, were not dress-up clothes…he wished to believe she’d chosen so from a kind of sympathy, that she’d thought of how poor her lunch guest was. Mrs. Drybrook had been tall; she was now bent crooked, and had she not been buttressed round by the arms of a caretaker, the trembling of her knees would have racked her off her feet. Her hands shook with a steady rhythm. She did not, though, ask her helper to speak on her behalf. With a warm smile, Mrs. Drybrook said to Powell, “That old place.”
He held her dry hand firmly for a while, feeling some impulse to imbue strength back into her grip. But he’d embarrassed her, taken her aback―or some other feeling Powell could not read―when he’d shown her the ribboned box.
Growing up, he had not gone visiting often. He could recall his mother’s taking him by the hand once or twice, drawing him from behind her skirts to speak to a neighbor; and from this small sampling of social life, Powell had gleaned his ideas of the niceties. He opened the box, sparing his hostess, and held the little vase out to her. He’d wavered, choosing a color. People have preferences, Powell had decided, about pink or yellow, but everyone likes blue.
“Mrs. Lessing,” she said, when her lips had stopped working, “do you see?”
“I seen them at Bonhof’s.”
“Ma’am”—Powell stood burdened with his token—“should I set this on that little bookcase?”
He wasn’t sure he could manage even that. The house, chosen, he thought, in consideration of Mrs. Drybrook’s age and health, had small rooms, its furnishings those she’d brought to it, misproportioned and too many. The caretaker’s backside was close pressed against his objective, little only in that it was squat and narrow—the bookcase—and commanded less space in the foyer than the standing closet. Powell would have to step through one of the arches, into either the dining room or the living room, and try darting an awkward hand behind Mrs. Lessing.
“Mr. Kenzie,” Mrs. Drybrook said. “I haven’t been very polite. May I apologize to you?”
He said these words; at the same time, he shook his head. He’d been inculcated in childhood with “yes, ma’am”—and really, he meant no, didn’t he? No. Why, no. Not at all.
“Will you join the young people on the sun porch? I would be pleased if you’d put the vase on the window sill by my chair, where I can see it when I read my morning paper.”
He thought she wasn’t pleased. She had not exactly thanked him. But her old memory at length had supplied her with some rule of etiquette, and she’d adapted it to the purpose.
Powell sidled into the living room, in no danger of losing his way, the porch being only a dozen feet from the foyer. The young people, he was relieved to see, were Isobel and Tovey. He thought the three of them made an ill-assorted and shopworn trio of young people, but at least with these two no small talk needed dredging up. He knew they didn’t really want to talk to him.
Isobel was wearing a dress, a Sunday church dress, it might have been, with a wide skirt and cropped jacket of the same fabric. She had been perched on an armchair’s sunken cushion, and while he was looking at her smile, rose and slipped the box from his hand. She then hugged Powell, pressing herself against his dirty clothes, catching him by surprise.
“Aren’t you presentable?”
She carried the vase to the window’s light and studied it. “Well, the flower is only plastic.”
“That was just something…” Powell began. He saw Tovey grinning at him. Tovey was slick and aromatic as the day before; he wore the same suit, but his was clean. Powell had wrung wrinkles into his shirt, having, without practical knowledge, guessed the wind would blow them out. That morning he’d recovered it, rust-stained from the clothespin, damp, and rumpled as an old rag.
“Got yourself swanked up, Kenzie.”
Tovey spat tobacco into his teacup, and augmented this remark with a mincing wave of it, finger extended. He had spread himself across the middle of the settee, one arm stretched along its back. Now he’d used his grandmother’s china for a spittoon, he placed cup and contents on her seat cushion. He made no room for Powell, who was tempted to ask Tovey to scoot over, just to see him discomfited. But Powell figured himself not as smart as Tovey. The chance was better not taken.
He turned away and saw Isobel bent over the sill, picking up the vase and setting it down again, this time so its gilded design faced the chair she’d risen from. Folded over the armrest was an afghan, knitted in pale blue mohair.
“You were telling me a story.”
She spoke with a preternatural awareness, it seemed to Powell. Her back was against him, so she had not seen his face. She sat again, gazing up, and added, “About Mrs. Drybrook, was it? Something…”
“It wasn’t anything.”
He’d paused for too long, because he was sure she didn’t mean them, these attentions offered under her husband’s eyes, and because he’d seen a teasing look in Isobel’s that shifted his doubts back in the other direction. Along with the welcome smell of Sunday pot roast, Mrs. Lessing’s talk, as she settled Mrs. Drybrook onto the living room sofa, came with clarity to the sun porch. Isobel leaned close, and said to Powell in a low voice, “Her son, Davis the younger, was killed in the accident at the mill. I don’t guess anyone had a reason to tell you.”
He wanted to ask her about the accident, if under his hostess’s roof he could safely do so. He wanted her confidences to go on regardless. He found himself answering tragic news with a nervous laugh.
Tovey sat forward and cleared his throat. This Powell almost admired, the way Tovey’s noise implied both mimicry and contempt. As though Powell had choked rather than chuckle.
“They got a pitcher of ice tea in the ’fridge. Go help yourself.”
“Don’t listen to him, stirring up trouble.”
Mrs. Drybrook’s chair, the tall reading lamp behind it, and her magazine rack, were all the furniture that could be fitted next to the door leading from the glass-enclosed sun porch to the open front porch. Tovey and his settee occupied the remaining space, and Powell, with nowhere to sit, hovered at the threshold. Isobel reached a hand to his arm, her touch keeping him still as she checked the living room.
“Mrs. Lessing,” she explained, leaning again, looking up into his face and speaking softly, “doesn’t want any of us here. All her routines are just so…” Mrs. Lessing, gone for a moment, burst plying the air with her wooden spoon, through the arches that framed the foyer. She eyed Mrs. Drybrook.
“Them gents show up?”
They heard voices, a staccato rhythm of talk, words impossible to make out. Powell saw Summers and another man pass by the glass pane of the door; for a second, cut in slices by the window blind, they stood at a halt, and their voices died. The bell rang.
“Mrs. Lessing, them gents!” Tovey called out, flourishing the gesture of a maître d’ at a fancy club.
“We’ll have lunch now, thank God for that,” Isobel said.
Remnants of some era when the Drybrooks still hosted card parties, folding chairs had been uncloseted. These, a poor match to the dining table’s height, were given to the young people. Isobel and Tovey had continually put him at a disadvantage, and Powell felt a little smug looking at them now, their chins a few inches above their plates. Mrs. Lessing had seated him at the corner, next to the stranger.
Continued from “next to the stranger”
“What was your name?” Summers asked him.
“Powell Kenzie, sir.”
“That’s right. This is Mr. Connolly, one of the Drybrook trustees.”
Connolly had angled himself towards Summers; and in a guarded way had offered, as he forked his potatoes, one or two comments.
“Summers, I drove all the way up Mill Road, down to the culvert, where the water was backed up.” He chewed a pearl onion. “It’s all gone away now.”
To Powell, discounting the grunt at introduction, Connolly did not speak, not even to mention the weather; and having gone days without eating his fill, he could not mind this. He applied himself to seconds and thirds. Powell, Isobel and Tovey were crowded on one side of the table; Summers alone spread expansively opposite. Mrs. Lessing, not of the company, but both cook and nurse, half-sat at the foot, her chair pushed behind her. She tucked an arm under Mrs. Drybrook’s, clamped a hand on the old woman’s wrist, and together they labored at this semblance of Mrs. Drybrook’s feeding herself.
She’d caught him watching, nodded at the sideboard, where dessert and coffee were laid out. “I’m busy. You better get yourself some of that cake.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lessing.”
“Good grub, ma’am,” Summers said, putting down his fork. “Mr. Kenzie, bring that cake over here to the table.”
He was cautious, conscious of his ragged nails, the cake plate, pedestalled and heavy milk-glass, Isobel and Summers flagging him in with steadying hand-signs. Summers caught the edge, when Powell landed it, and rolled the cake round. He dropped himself a generous slab.
“Ma’am?” Connolly said, raising eyebrows at Isobel.
“Powell, hand across the plates, will you, please?”
He saw Connolly redden as Isobel took on the task of cutting and serving, deaf to the trustee’s soft-peddled courtesy, pretending rather to have supposed he expected her to.
“Mrs. Lessing, you put a lot of cinnamon in this cake.”
Mrs. Lessing frowned at Summers. He turned to Connolly. “Now, my mother would make a streusel without cinnamon. Just butter and brown sugar. I was going to mention,” he added, swallowing, “there is a difference between vagrancy and sleeping outdoors. The trouble is, Mr. Rohdl has himself some money. Even has a place to live. He just tends to gravitate to the mill. If Guy picks him up again, Rohdl’ll tell him what he says every time…he’s perfectly happy to go home.”
“Well, but what with all the rain…” Connolly changed his mind. “You don’t think the symptoms, if that’s the right word, have gotten worse? Maybe, if Rohdl turns up again…”
“Now, Mr. Connolly, it’s the river you’re thinking of.” Summers took the remainder of the cake.
Connolly spoke with a town-fatherly intonation. “What happened was an accident. Some of the locals…I guess you always have people like that…think we’re keeping a secret from them. I’d just as soon have Rohdl alive, not to make another mystery.” He grew thoughtful, and produced a snatch of conversational filler. “More to the point.” He delayed the point, while with the back of his spoon he tamped crumbs from his plate. “The mill site is perfectly viable for new industry. In another year or two, we’ll be given clearance to begin developing that whole riverfront area.”
“Assuming it matters,” Summers clipped in at Connolly’s pause. “I’m doing what you should have thought of doing from the start. I’m trying to be a friend to Rohdl. How can we know if he’s a threat to our plans, when we don’t know what’s on his mind in the first place?”
“Tovey,” Powell said, “what are you looking for out there?”
He was in the middle this time, bumping between Tovey and Isobel, his paper bag clutched in one hand, his other supporting the ice chest, a burden he and Isobel shared. By the time Powell had come around from Mrs. Drybrook’s back door, Tovey was in the driver’s seat.
Mrs. Lessing had laden Powell with a musty army cot, one white shirt and two suits on wire hangers, styled so conservatively they might have belonged to either of the Davis Drybrooks. Summers ambled after him swinging the chest packed with leftovers, and Isobel followed, carrying a box of dishes deemed by Mrs. Lessing unwanted.
And while he’d stood behind the coupe’s raised hatch, puzzling over the wedging in of these things, Mrs. Lessing had come up the walk, and added a radio to the top of the heap.
“This is broken,” she told him. “But maybe it still works.”
Tovey spun them onto Mill Road, using far more gas than Powell had dared. “You own the place now, Kenzie? That why Connolly had you signing papers?”
“It’s my business, asking.” As resident caretaker, he could report Tovey, Powell guessed. To Lloyd Guy. His position didn’t strike him as a strong one. “But I could help you, if I knew what to do.”
Tovey braked, a little ahead of the barn, and backed the car onto the grass. From the highway, up Mill Road to the Drybrook place, seemed no distance to Powell, now he found the route familiar. He held the cooler, while Isobel slipped out from beneath. Then, moving across to Tovey’s vacant place, he got out himself, and came round the car to stand beside her. They both watched Tovey, whose eyes were on his polished shoes, pick his way up the footpath.
“But,” Powell said again, “he must have told you what he’s up to. The place is empty…I mean, they didn’t leave anything…”
He would offend her by going further. In his private mind, though, he believed Tovey wanted to take something from the Drybrook house.
“Powell, what were they talking about, Summers and Connolly?”
“I thought…well…Mr. Rohdl is missing. It sounded like Summers thinks he went in the river. And then Connolly drove out to take a look…” He trailed off. Her face told him he hadn’t understood her.
“Did you not hear Mr. Connolly say they’ve laid their plans now? They’d like putting in a real chemical plant, or the power plant they’ve talked about…” She turned, and Powell, already facing the ruin, saw from this low ground only the barbed upper tier of the fence, as far as the damaged part, where it dipped away and vanished. He saw the water tower, a tin-hatted silo, patchy with rust.
“They’ll be pleased to see it all gone and buried. Connolly talks about jobs for the community. You see, you can’t fight it, that persuasion. But, Powell, do you know…?” She faced him again. She lowered her head and lifted her eyes, catching Powell’s on the way. “Emmaline Tovey worked there.”
“That was…” He tried sorting this thing, that had stirred her so. “Dennis’s mother? A Tovey herself?” But it was incongruous, he thought. Hadn’t they been telling him Dennis’s mother had married a Drybrook?
Isobel, angrily, began walking. She took Powell’s hand on her way past. “Wait,” she said then, “we can’t go up this hill without bringing a load. I’ll get the ice chest.”
“You can’t carry it.”
She shook her head at him, not bothering to answer. Throwing open the driver’s side door, Isobel slid the chest out, slung its handles over her arm, this done too decisively for Powell to push in. He opened the trunk and considered Mrs. Lessing’s radio. It was in the way, and he would need to put it on the ground or carry it. Her remark had implied she saw him capable of tinkering, which he wasn’t. But he tucked this under his arm, and ratcheted out the army cot. The box of dishes clinked. He thought he’d heard one break.
“Don’t carry too much, you’ll lose your footing,” Isobel said. The two of them, unable to balance with their laden arms, began a gingerly ascent. “Do you understand?” she asked him. “Mrs. Drybook wanted to arrange for her to go to a place in New York, and she wouldn’t, of course. Emmaline wouldn’t have their trifling payoff. She told them she would shout it from the roof tops.”
“You’re telling me”—he was guessing, but it made sense—“it was Mr. Drybrook, the mill owner, the one your grandfather knew.”
Any town of this size must have its controversies. But this state that had arisen between the Toveys and the Drybrooks went to the heart. Powell wished he’d learned more, or had the sense to suspect more, before he’d signed Connolly’s paper.
“They made a bargain, the Drybrooks,” Isobel answered. “And the war gave them a pretext for sliding out of it. They put the property aside, where it couldn’t be inherited, and now they mean to sell it finally and absolutely.”
They reached the rock shelf that forced the dogleg. Powell glanced over his shoulder…and started. But as suddenly as he’d seen the sheet of newspaper flutter up from the streambed, he’d recognized what it was.
“Young Davis Drybrook married the first girl only to help her become a citizen. It’s funnier than that, if you like, because when Davis was at Princeton, he went Red, and his Student Workers’ Party…or what have you…staged a sort of mass wedding ceremony to benefit their Bolshie friends. You see, Powell, how it was up his alley to take on Emmaline. He brought her back from Chicago in 1930, and by then, the Drybrooks had put it about that Dennis was hers, but not necessarily his.”
“But people would have assumed Dennis was his, wouldn’t they?”
“No! Use your head! It didn’t matter what anyone might tittle-tattle over, but it mattered a lot what might be proved. The Drybrooks had had ten years of story crafting, by that time. Davis embarrassed them, he’d been expelled from his college, he’d married a Tovey and left town with her. And what could Old Drybrook do about that? But they stopped keeping quiet and began making a martyrdom of it. Ten years of their little hints worked into the fabric, you see. People who didn’t know the Drybrooks—all the newcomers hired in wartime—came to believe Davis the younger a little cracked, a trial to his parents, given to eccentricities, chivalrous impulses, led astray by grand ideas…or by low women. I don’t say it about poor Emmaline, you understand. I think she was a bit mad, for the use she got from the Drybrooks. She kept herself quiet, out of the stream of things…”
The expression seemed to give Isobel pause. “Here I am making you stand with that heavy load. And you’ve let me say such rude things to you…Powell.” She shook her head, saying his name in this sorrowing, affectionate way. “The Tovey clan have a long history hereabouts. It’s enough to say most of the locals see them as dodgy characters, liars and thieves.”
Powell, resuming his slog in her wake, thought of Connolly. Connolly had given no sign, but he had been waiting for Mrs. Drybrook’s. Her uncomfortable means of meal-taking might have been an indiscreet view through a neighbor’s distant window, from which the head of the Drybrook trust averted his eyes. But when her plate was clean, and Mrs. Lessing had begun clearing away dishes into the kitchen, he’d said, “Ma’am, I’ve brought something for Mr. Kenzie to read over and sign.”
Powell, seated next to Connolly, had given him an astonished look. Tovey scooted back his chair, not yet leaving the table, but crossing his arms, thrusting out his legs in a disrespectful sprawl. Mrs. Drybrook―Powell’s boss, as Connolly seemed to regard her―said, “Mr. Kenzie will need a car, living out there. I would like him to take mine.” The silence that followed, as Connolly penciled this in, had been her calculation.
“Two dollars a month, I think, will be a fair allowance for fuel.”
Powell demurred. Her generosity worried him; her placing him at odds with Tovey frightened him. “No, ma’am…”
“I don’t drive, Mr. Kenzie.” The answer came firm, and with such deserved rebuke, that he wished he’d said no more than “thank you”. Tovey, at that point, stood and left the room. When her grandson had come for the car, Mrs. Drybrook had offered him no resistance. But she’d outflanked Dennis. And she’d done it with the force of law.
Powell reached the concrete wall, the canting wall that had troubled Lloyd Guy. The lawn above was just high enough that he would fall over backwards, trying to step up with his arms full. Isobel, he’d watched go briskly to where the halves split, and a little ramp of earth and pebbles remained of the steps. She’d gained momentum with a swing of the cooler. He saw her disappear around the side of the house, making for the kitchen door.
Only Powell and Lloyd Guy now had keys. He’d been told by Connolly that the couple who did the cleaning and yard work―Mrs. Lessing’s sister and her husband―had handed over theirs, since Powell could now let them in. He thought they would not, though, have handed over every copy, convinced, as Mrs. Lessing clearly was, of her vagrant’s being a latent criminal, the old woman deluded in her charity.
And Powell believed Tovey could get in if he wanted to.
He threw the cot on the lawn, laid the radio at his feet, and sat on the wall. He thought about the Tovey clan. In all his tours up and down the town’s thoroughfares, he had not seen the name Tovey on any business, not even a pawn shop. He couldn’t guess where they lived; he hadn’t been around long enough to know the town’s high streets from the low. But they had lived for years with the illusion of a promise. They circled the Drybrook property; they meant to bedevil the trustees. They spoke in slips of the tongue.
Isobel’s Dennis was the half-brother of Mrs. Drybrook’s son, at the same time her step-grandchild…her husband’s flesh, not her own. It would please the Toveys to have a stranger naïvely question old family stories. Had he not been warned by Lloyd Guy that more than one local character bore the name Dennis Tovey, Powell might have been led all round the garden path.
No, he hadn’t taken the half of it into account. He would never need to report any incursion or trespass to Guy. He had not been brought here and showered with such comparative largess because his scheme (which, he could only guess, Summers had overheard) was so ingenious. They now had a caretaker on the premises. Guy would keep his eye on the Toveys, and what might once have passed for rowdiness or ignorance would now be an offense. And, for this change of policy, who would the Toveys come to hate?
“Hand me up that radio,” someone said.
Powell jumped to his feet. He was looking at a face much like that of Dennis Tovey, but this Tovey―Powell assumed it must be so―was taller, a few years younger, and not as slickly turned out. He had already picked up the cot.
“There’s no reason…” He hefted the radio and hugged this to his chest, wondering why he needed to argue. “I can get it myself.”
“Broken, isn’t it? You want me to take a look.”
The kitchen door stood back on its hinges. Powell had not really doubted it. “I’m Powell Kenzie,” he told his uninvited guest.
“Well, sure you are. Alfin Tovey.” Alfin preceded him, going in. “What you need is some furniture. But set that radio down where the kitchen table ought to be.”
Isobel was there, the ice chest at her feet. “Mrs. Lessing has gone soft on Powell, Alfin. You wouldn’t know it to look at her.” She turned to the counter, peeling tinfoil from a glass pan. Powell stared at Alfin’s antics. A comedian, this Tovey was, darting—the cot under his arm—here and there; not liking the stove, Isobel having already shooed him from the refrigerator…
Powell stepped up, to see what she wanted to show; and Alfin, raising eyebrows, flung against the wall.
“Well, here. This looks like the spot.” He winged his arms away from his sides, dropping it, as though the weight of the cot had been vast.
This habit of clowning, Powell concluded, made itself convenient to the staging of the Toveys’ affairs…they could claim, as chance and Lloyd Guy demanded, to have been serious or unserious. Alfin came too and leaned, with a hand on Powell’s shoulder, peering with interest at Mrs. Lessing’s chocolate iced cake.
“Good then. We’ll have that tonight. What’d she send along for drinks?”
“Not enough for you.”
Someone was walking. The footfalls were not as pronounced as Guy’s had been, and came not from overhead, but had the rhythm and thump of human motion. Powell heard a faint creak.
“Is Tovey in the cellar?”
Continued from “in the cellar”
“You mean Dennis?”
His plan of the night before had been to dispel himself of the jitters; he had waffled then, was a convert today, in believing Summers’s ghost story to be a part of Guy’s—a hazing to see if Powell would run scared. He’d checked the attic…and meant to look in the cellar. But last night there’d been no light at the head of the stairs.
The cellar door, exiting the passageway from kitchen to dining room, sat askew in its frame. Rather than go after Dennis, Alfin on this knocked out Morse code with his knuckles.
Enough. Powell went to the window. Soon it would rain, and he, a man on the job, ought to bring the other things up from the car. Alfin and Dennis could fool on as they pleased.
“Alfin,” Isobel called out, just when Powell had nearly sidled off. “Stop your nonsense, and give a hand to Powell.”
He kept walking. But in a moment he heard Alfin’s reckless jogging progress, heard him slip on loose stones, and laugh to himself about it. Alfin caught Powell up, slapped him on the arm, then trotted ahead. Powell stopped at the dogleg. Nature had laid the features of the hill long before the Drybrooks built their house. That its windows catch a traversing sun, it faced on an angle between Mill Road and route seven. They’d built the barn as close as level ground allowed to the way out, the road carrying traffic from countryside to town. All those practicalities, in the days when people cocooned themselves wintertimes, living in compromise with nature, were taken into account.
He felt there was something more than the narrowing of the footpath, the impeding rock, slowing him here. He stared at the streambed, listened and listened, and saw nothing.
Alfin was waiting for him, smoking a cigarette, rump on the car’s hood.
“Can you fix the radio?” Powell asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen the inside of it.”
“But, I mean, you do fix things like that? I don’t know anything about gadgets and all.”
“Well, as I see it, so long as a thing’s broken, it does no harm poking about its innards. Can’t get worse, might get better. Now, let me ask you, Powell…did Connolly not advance you something, for tiding you through to payday?”
“I’m going to take the car, then, and get what we need for our housewarming party. You’ll have to give me that money.” Alfin slid to his feet, clambered inside, pushed the starter and sat smiling, pleasantly, in anticipation.
One of the helpful townsfolk would tell the Big Chief that Alfin Tovey had been witnessed behind the wheel of Mrs. Drybrook’s car. Powell could see the mix of incredulity and disdain on Guy’s face…he’d seen it already. He dug the ten out of his pocket. He could not persuade himself he had a choice.
Dropping the trunk hatch, Powell backed off waving, one arm hugging his box of crockery, Drybrook’s suits over the other, trammeling the gesturing hand Alfin had probably not seen. He might have insisted he could do his own shopping, and taken the car (taking, then, the housewarming party for granted), and would, in the meantime—while clinging to the money—cede the run of the place to the Toveys. He might have read the riot act to Alfin, ordered him off the premises.
Guy would say it was a question of Powell’s doing his duty.
Well, he told himself, duty doesn’t always answer…there are times following orders leaves you stuck just as bad as you were to begin with. He would have turned his back on Alfin, still letting him take the car if he wanted, and marched up to the house, to repeat his speech to Dennis and Isobel—he couldn’t, because he liked her, exclude Isobel. And Guy, measuring the world by his own yardstick, discounted that he had some weight to throw around.
Guy was against the Toveys, even where they did no apparent harm…maybe only because they were said to be low class. Maybe because they’d been getting the better of him.
Cogitating thus, and wandering, Powell found himself at the front of the house. Alfin had parked his truck here…this made a fair show of good faith. Possibly, the truck was not Alfin’s. The cab was sun bleached and rusty, the flatbed gouged to the metal, dented where it had borne the impact of weighty things, red and black paint under aqua. Looking back down the driveway, Powell considered the view. They would have needed earth-moving equipment to crack through the rock face and grade the slope. Maybe thirty years ago, when they’d bought their first car, the Drybrooks had laid this in.
He could see the top of the barn from here, and a scant border of grass. If a car were parked in close, he ought still to see its nose. But just over the hill—going north, he thought, on Mill Road—might be houses, someplace people lived that was within walking distance. Toveys, Powell meant, being honest with himself…he pictured them that way, like one or two families he’d known back home, all congregated in a hollow. He turned in the other direction, looking for the mill’s gate.
The front door opened. Tovey shouted: “Kenzie, what are you doing, surveying the property line? Get in the house!”
And always appeasing to a superior, even in a hierarchy founded on sarcasm and noise, Powell moved too fast, bumping up to the stoop. He heard what might have been the breaking of another dish. Setting the box with care on the floor, he draped his suits over it, and straightened, ear cocked to the staircase. He took a step or two after Tovey, and in the dining room stopped.
“No, she isn’t. She’s in the kitchen.”
“Do you mind if I go up, then, and take a look…”
“I want you,” Tovey said, “to come down to the cellar with me. I have something for you to look at down there.”
Powell had heard the floorboard bump. Tovey ought to have, too. Another party guest he was playing host to, more of Tovey’s mischief worrying Powell into a fellow-feeling for Lloyd Guy.
In her Sunday dress Isobel had, for the sake of keeping busy, Powell supposed, started scrubbing the cabinets. She’d got out the box of soap flakes and the bucket, lately the only items the kitchen contained. After wringing out a bandana she might have snatched from Tovey’s breast pocket, she tilted the bucket of brown water, showing her evidence to Powell.
“They haven’t really cleaned,” she told him, then changed the subject, reading his mind again. “Do you think, Powell, that Lloyd Guy will drop by our party?”
“Go upstairs, Bel,” Tovey said. “You don’t need to be doing that work. Kenzie thinks the ghost’s walking. You stop in, say howdy.”
He followed this insult with a tug on Powell’s arm, and Powell shuffled reluctant feet towards the cellar, thinking of Isobel going up alone. He could see only one electric bulb, in a socket mounted on a joist over the steps. The rest of the cellar was lit by windows, or by nothing. But at the landing, Tovey had cached two kerosene lanterns next to the wall. He struck a match; lighting one, he thrust this at Powell, and lit the other.
“I,” he said, “ain’t gonna tell you. I want you to tell me. Look around. Pay close attention.”
Taking this directive in frustration, Powell pushed open a door and saw a chamber finished with rough-cut flooring. From one high, dirt spattered window, fell a sad shaft of light, showing emptiness where once a Drybrook servant of least status―one who might have built the morning fires and pumped water from the well―had had his quarters. Powell let the door stand open, backed out and turned to the opposite wall, lifting the lantern above his head. He learned nothing by casting light over the Drybrook’s oil burner.
He was unsettled, worried for Isobel’s safety…irrationally so, he understood—for Tovey had been very sure of himself. Tovey breathed in a deliberate way. He was growing irritated. In a minute, he’d say something scornful. Powell tried to sort in his mind what Tovey could be after. He stared at the wall. Leaning close, he began to study its cement facing. Some light-starved moss grew here and spread; the surface crumbled and broke, wedges of it falling from the bricks.
“Okay, sport, now you’re getting warmer,” Tovey said.
Part of the floor had been concreted over as well, fitted here with a proper drain. Away from the main cellar was a rough area of packed earth. And all along the edge at eye level, Powell saw ghostly tendrils. Vines had probed their way to the inside, mingling with cobwebs, fringing the gap between foundation and façade. Powell prodded at the dirt with his toe.
“Looking for skeletons? You’re cold, Kenzie.”
What he’d seen of the cellar so far had been dug below the original house, corresponding to dining room, kitchen and parlor. Powell supposed the land had not always belonged to the Drybrooks. Or if it had from colonial times, then other unhappy Drybrooks must have gone before the daughter who was said to haunt this place. But folklore hardly needs a toehold on historical truth. The Toveys, on the other hand, wanted to damage the Drybrook trust, make their enemies’ deal with the county unprofitable. To do this they needed, not a fairy story, but a dirty secret.
Tovey, impatient with his own game, brought his lantern to shine next to Powell’s. Powell had made his way around to a little store room, nearly completing his circuit. The shelves were empty. He left this door open as well, and moved to escape in the direction of the stairs. Tovey pinched his collar, not allowing it.
“But what am I looking for?”
Nothing about the unfaced wall, coated in thick dust, suggested tampering; the footprints on the concrete floor, Powell assumed, were his and Tovey’s, maybe Lloyd Guy’s. He felt, though, that Guy, just as he ignored the attic, would never come down to the cellar. Tovey heaved a sigh, and the lantern he held flickered with the force of it.
“They started digging the tunnel from the mill to the house, when Drybrook first contracted with the government. That was during the last war. I mean ’17, something like that. The mill was still basically in the business of finishing cloth, waterproofing duck for tents, covers for transport trucks…you know…but Drybrook got interested back then in chemicals. Maybe he was thinking about the future. Later, who knows what he was thinking? But by ’42, when they turned the mill property into a sort of lab, they’d finished off the tunnel.
“I don’t know what the war was like in your part of the world, Kenzie, but around here, we got all wound up with stories about an amphibious invasion. That’s what we were told to be getting ready for…subs full of enemy soldiers sneaking up the coastline. So they had an emergency plan to take all the documents from the mill to the house―so the high-ups could hie off in a getaway car, I guess. Now, look,” he moved his lantern close, and pointed, jabbing his finger twice. And at last, Powell discerned something.
The brick had been disguised with competence. Powell might have called the work professional, if such a profession existed—no hack-job done with clean new brick and fresh white mortar, thrown up in haste and disarray. Like any country house, the Drybrook place had a plenitude of spare bricks. Powell had seen them piled against the barn, stacked before the shed. They might have used a pump sprayer, the kind that dispensed herbicide along the roadside ditch. They might have swept the floor and gathered the cellar’s own dust, to mix a perfect blend. But there was an overlap, marked by bubbling, just at the edge. The dust covering this section of brick betrayed, if a light were shined on it close enough, a uniformity of pattern.
He paused. Entry at the mill end of the tunnel was forever blocked, buried long and deep. Powell recalled how smoothly leveled off the mill property had looked. Only truncated walls differentiated a depth of rubble unguessable. All this meticulous labor had been part of an ordered process, one still unfolding. Before sealing this end, they had carried away what they wanted.
“What,” said Tovey, finishing for him, “do I think I’m going to find, when I take a sledgehammer to this wall?”
“I guess so, if that’s what you plan to do.”
Tovey opened his mouth, hearing Powell’s stress on “you”. He decided not to say it, whatever he’d first thought of.
“I want to lay eyes on the inside of the tunnel. For myself,” he said.
Two more of the Tovey clan returned in Alfin’s wake. They’d left Mrs. Drybrook’s car below, and roared in a second family vehicle over the hump, idling in the drive, backfire from the tailpipe rattling the windows. Isobel smiled at Tovey.
“There’s Alfin’s dad.”
Alfin backed through the front door, carrying two folding chairs hooked over an elbow, a bottle tucked in an armpit.
“You mind that,” Tovey said.
A girl with a sack of groceries followed, and Alfin, directly placing the bottle in jeopardy, plucked her by the sleeve. “Give that over to Isobel. I’ll introduce you to your host.” He dropped the chairs, with less drama than he’d dropped the cot, and looked Powell up and down.
“I thought we’d see you togged out in one of your new suits. You look like you’ve been down the cellar.” Gripping the neck of the bottle, Alfin pulled it free; with the same hand, he bumped this against the small of her back, nudging the girl forward.
“Here we have Lois. Lois, Powell Kenzie.”
Lois, though possibly another cousin, was not dark or wiry of build, but somewhat doughy, auburn-haired and freckled. Her eyelashes, and her age, were indistinguishable. Powell looked across to the door where Alfin’s father, having lingered with the car, entered at last, bringing two more chairs. The older man nodded. “Hello there…Kenzie, is it?”
Powell was much relieved when Isobel tapped Lois on the shoulder and ushered her into the kitchen. He’d spent the hours from late afternoon to sundown taking orders from Isobel, silence between them, as Tovey paced in and out. The house was swept and scrubbed, Mrs. Lessing’s dishes rinsed of dust and stacked on a clean countertop.
He had five guests, and could now offer them four seats. He followed the women, loitered in a corner, unstacked a bowl when the others had shuffled past, and after backing himself three times to the end of the line. Then, from Isobel’s buffet choosing two halves of a deviled egg, Powell dropped over these a handful of pretzels, a chicken leg, a spoonful of fruit salad…guessing this would just have to mix its way in. Once he’d emptied his bowl, he would need it for cake. Returning to the parlor, he chose a place, as a host short of chairs ought to, on the floor.
“Age before beauty, old Dad. You sit yourself here. I don’t mind the floor, if Powell don’t.” Alfin, with an arm thrown round his father’s shoulders, steered him to a chair. But he shot a glance at Tovey, who was already perched on one of the others, and holding the bottle between his knees.
Tovey drank, then leaned with the bottle still between his lips to tap Powell. Powell took his turn, timing his swig to match the length of Tovey’s. No one had asked for glasses. He passed the bottle up to Alfin’s father. When it came Lois’s turn, she dropped this, hands slack, into Alfin’s alert grasp. Her eyes widened, as Summers stepped into the parlor.
“So he’s got himself inside, after all. Is that right, ma’am?”
“He wouldn’t say a word to me,” Isobel told Summers. “I’ll go up with you, though, again.”
“Now I’m assuming,” Summers said, crossing as she rose, to hover a hand under her elbow, “you taking it calm, like you are, Miss Gilshannon, that you found Mr. Rohdl…well, I don’t know if safe is the word. Not in need of medical help, let me put it that way.”
Isobel, last to come in from the kitchen, had briefly been off her feet. Powell thought she looked tired, wilted now at the end of this long day.
“That’s hard to say, isn’t it? The point where someone stops holding up? It’s as I tell you, Mr. Summers. He doesn’t speak. But I left a plate with him…if Mr. Rohdl’s been starving, a bite could have brought him round. I suppose, for your purposes, he’s all right.”
Continued from “he’s all right”
“I will go up.” Unexpectedly, Alfin’s father said this. He seemed to Powell not much past fifty, but his rising, as he pushed himself from the folding chair’s seat, came with a groan and a rubbing of the knees. He stretched as he crossed the room, and said to Summers, “I am Dennis Tovey, sir. I don’t know you.”
“Summers.” Withdrawing a hand from his jacket pocket, Summers extended it, and bent as far as his girth permitted, to peer close at Mr. Tovey.
“So, she’s out there tonight, is she? And you saw her yourself?”
“It may be,” Tovey said, “that if I sit awhile with Mr. Rohdl, and tell him my story…”
He was not a talkative man. He had run out of words.
“Your story,” Summers prompted. “You were waiting by the car, having a smoke. You looked up to the hilltop, towards the back of the property. Yes, I was coming up the way myself.”
“Well, I thought it was the moon, low among the trees, as you see it sometimes. Lovely, bright, clear light, shining there. But the moon was hanging in the sky all the time, away over the mill. I was not afraid of her, Mr. Summers. Do you say, then, you saw her, too?”
They heard the bump of the floorboard in the room upstairs. Lois drew breath, and Alfin sat up. The younger Dennis cocked his head, half-closed his eyes, and with this aloof and skeptical face, glanced first at one and then the other of his cousins. Powell belatedly got to his feet.
Having let himself in uninvited through the kitchen door, Summers made a poor guest. But his opinion of Powell as host was apparent―he had not even looked at Powell.
“Mr. Rohdl, will you come down?” he called out.
They stepped on each others’ heels—all but Dennis—and crowded the foot of the staircase. Rohdl did not come down. They saw him move, haggard and wild-haired, to stare from the top. He could have meant to address Summers, or to seek answers from Lettie, if his eyes could see her. Yet Rohdl asked the questions that Summers himself might have asked.
“Can you speak to me? Is there anything that you can tell me?”
One bottle of whiskey, shared among six people, had not afforded him a large enough portion. He wasn’t drunk. He could not even fall asleep. The air in Powell’s bedroom felt stifling, stingy of oxygen, dominated by the cot’s musty smell.
Summers had said to Isobel, as though Isobel decided these things, “My inclination is leave him be. I can’t think of any reason to drag Mr. Rohdl away by the arm.”
And they had all gone, at half past eleven, roaring off in their respective vehicles. Isobel had at least come up to Powell and said to him quietly, “Poor Mr. Rohdl will be no trouble to you, but if you mind very much…”
“I don’t mind at all.” He’d cut her short, and now fretted about this rudeness—but her eyes had been so weary, Powell had wanted her to go.
All the lights in the house were off. He pulled the cot to his window, and sat for a while, watching the road. The trees, even in the few days he’d been here, had leafed into a canopy.
He stood then, feeling some courage for having Rohdl’s company, and folded the cot, because he would need it. He’d wondered if the other man’s state might grow agitated, if Rohdl might pace and bump the floorboard all night. Not concealing his movements, but neither consulting with his housemate, Powell carried the cot into the hall, and climbed the attic stairs, apathetic to the thud of its legs against the treads.
He chose a room on the mill side. The attic was pitch dark, and so hot that in a minute’s time he felt sweat bead his nose. The low window, exactly as he’d pictured it from memory, hit at the height where he could lie on the cot and look down over the hill, at moonlight cascade over knobs of rock, making shadows blacker, gleaming pale on tufts of grass. From here, he saw the car, parked where Alfin had left it, in front of the barn. He saw the full path of the streambed, from hilltop to roadside. He imagined the land overlaid with pristine snow, glittering feet of it. To the left, and somewhat below the rock shelf, he could see a deep hollow, a well without contour.
He wished he could see the ghost. If she would show herself, he would be able to believe. The idea of Lettie was insane. But with what alternative was he left? To accept they had a purpose in telling their stories…that they were not friends, helping to make something of a downtrodden ex-soldier; but rather, they had seen in Powell someone useless and disposable.
Breedman’s friend spat on the ground. He didn’t swear at Powell. He mouthed, instead, three words, as though Powell’s display of idiocy had struck him speechless. “I dunno,” he said, body language over-projecting. He canted himself sideways to squint at Powell. “Maybe they got a Sunday seminar you can go to, learn this stuff. Outta the way, is what I figure.” He’d shaken his head, and left Powell with no choice.
Powell had been smoking a cigarette, enjoying fifteen minutes’ freedom before he reported for duty. He didn’t know the name of Breedman’s friend, who had moved in his peripheral vision, then whirled suddenly, standing toe to toe with Powell.
“What’s your name, private?”
Powell addressed him as though he were an officer, while nervously darting glances at the fatigues he wore, looking for some sign of rank or identity. He had seen this soldier speaking to Breedman. A truck rumbled past, and with a disingenuous face, Breedman’s friend began to talk, his lips saying something of which Powell caught only the name Breedman.
“You need to move that jeep,” he’d finished, and pointed. And Powell had said, “Yes, sir. Move the jeep…where, sir?”
He moved unseen through the Ritz…the G.I.’s name for this senior officers’ billet. The place was kind of fancy, though Powell understood it to have been a sort of residence hotel, such as his mother had spoken of with an awful scorn. But Europe was different. Miller, with his back turned, hadn’t known Powell crouched clinging to an odd crook of the stair rail, where the top flight ended and the corridor began. If he slipped backwards, he would fall. But that was not precisely his idea, to have an accident. He’d left his post, where he crouched watching also, through a sixth story window, over a walled yard backed by another row of tall houses.
He’d memorized the colors of the brick: this, on the corner, red like fresh butcher’s meat; the next, congealing iron brown; the one after, glazed in grey-green putrefaction. He’d memorized the center house’s hat-shaped attic, deformed by a bomb hole. Three broken windows, low and away to the left…he could see shards of glass litter the floor inside. All this half-done destruction disquieted Powell’s mind. He wanted it finished.
Now, to gain time, he risked letting go with his feet, hanging on by just his hands, toeing the bannister below…the sort of trick he’d done as a schoolkid. He could do this now, spring off, and come down on the carpeted steps almost without noise, catch his balance. He padded at speed to the final crook of the railing, where, twisting around behind, a short flight led to the building’s basement story. He was exposed here. He dropped to his belly and scooted himself backwards, sliding flat against the floor. The cellar door was close…but so was the way to the street, and the corporal behind the desk. He found the contrast of light, that came only from the windows, worked in his favor. He might make the cellar—
If he could manage the door in silence, if it were unlocked, and if Miller stayed away long enough. Powell calculated escape would take only seconds.
An officer he respected once had told him, “Breedman will get after you like a bulldog if he thinks you’re fighting him. Adapt.”
Powell did adapt; he gave in, gave way, and kept his mouth shut. After all, he had not yet been on duty, and an idling infantryman was fair game for make-work. But if it was a practical joke, it couldn’t be funny enough to explain the planning that had gone into the staging of it.
Mindful of its tires and axles, he’d driven the jeep at a snail’s pace to an intersecting lane, and left it parked there with minutes to spare, and misgivings. His terror of Breedman induced him to put faith in a detailed report. He’d tried, trotting to the Ritz, telling this over to himself, exactly as he must recite it to Miller.
But he’d been engineered out of details.
Breedman had talked about this mystery of the missing jeep, reminded of it by chance, when they’d needed a charged-up battery. “You figure, whoever the dumb sumbitch sold that’un to get stopped somewheres pretty quick, and you don’t know, to be fair, what kinda criminal you’re dealin’ with ’til you get your hands on the evidence.” But this oblique ragging wasn’t the source of Powell’s misery. He knew Breedman and his pal had stolen the jeep…good luck to them, then. They’d put Powell in a place where he’d pretty much have to confess…seeing he pretty much had already.
The sentry, who stood inside the door, holding it open to a view of both lobby and street, shifted. He’d heard what Powell heard—Miller walking the floor above, breaking as he did, a rule by humming a tune. But the soldier’s reaction proved fortuitous for Powell. He seemed to anticipate a let-up in the boredom, a minute of human contact. Waiting for Miller, the sentry relaxed, and turned for a moment to jawbone with the corporal at the desk. Like a badger to its sett, Powell shot himself under the stairs. He could hide here, and bide his time. He wouldn’t have much of it.
He was listening, creeping along the wall, so single-minded now the patrols didn’t trouble him. He didn’t intend leaving the cellar. Powell had taken his post that morning, and stared at the clouds in the blue sky. Then he’d looked at them again, reflected across the way, in the single pane of a sightless window. Then he’d dropped his gear, and taken off his boots. All as though someone had told him what to do.
This cellar was not like the one he’d grown up with, a hole in the ground, a coal chute and a crawl space. Dismal apartments had been sectioned off here. Powell came across an echoing pit that looked like a well-head. A pipe issued from the floor above, curving beside a beam. Its other end disappeared, and the underfloor opening that surrounded it had been knocked out to a width of about two feet. Using the pipe itself for purchase, Powell shinnied into this gap.
He rolled onto his back. Nothing about his hiding place frightened him. He had felt bagged in a net of rules; he hadn’t known he could so easily slice through them and land on soft earth. For many weeks he’d been lucky to sleep four or five hours, sometimes permitted this by day, sometimes by night. The building’s deadening weight imposed a remarkable silence underneath, and Powell began to fall into a doze. But some warning intuition nagged him back to alertness. He would not hear them call out or shout as they searched for him. The beam of a flashlight, playing across his socks, would discover him. Any minute, Powell might find himself surprised, if he did not move into deeper cover.
Light through a crack in the foundation, a place where rainwater must channel—he could see the damage done; how freeze and thaw had split the stone like a chisel—gave him a sense of orientation. Within this darkness, he had two poles, an inner and an outer aperture. He closed his eyes again. Someone was in the cellar. He heard an exchange of words. The voices came from the room on the other side of the wall, against which Powell pressed himself tight, trying to make them out. He opened his eyes, and knew he hadn’t been mistaken. He watched, entertained, as the beam of a flashlight glared past him, deflected by a cloud of floating dust motes.
“…skinny bastard. I couldn’t have done it myself.”
He thought it was Miller speaking. Miller laughed at some suggestion the other made. Powell dredged up the words of a New England poet―a sonnet he’d once committed to memory―and told it over to himself twice.
We do not believe the painted testimony of desire
Weaving lulling melodies accompany unchanging sighing
Words of desultory pessimism…
He listened, followed the green second hand round his watch face once, and once again. He heard nothing. They might have withdrawn to the top of the stairs. But Powell felt stirred up now, bothered by something he kept smelling. He would not get the sleep he’d hoped for.
Only when he stopped trying to locate the smell, would it waft back. His eyes by now had adjusted reasonably well. He looked at the pipe over his head. Perhaps once a minute he was hearing a high-pitched, sputtering hiss. After scooting on his back a foot or two nearer the outer foundation, Powell saw condensation bead around a joint. Rings of shining copper caught the light. Someone had recently taken a wrench to the coupling. An odor of inferior coal gas weltered, yet dissipated rapidly. From any distance, as Powell had learned, the smell was undetectable.
So long as the cellar flats with their broken windows were left alone, the gas had a means of venting. And, at any time, under the guise of ordinary work, the pipe could be sealed, the bomb disabled. No one would guess. But yet again, if they wished to use what they’d arranged, they had only to employ some hapless stooge, another Powell, under the thumb of another Breedman. He would board over the broken glass, plug the gaps in the foundation, because he’d been told to, and no one watching him would think anything of his doing it. And the gas, contained, would billow, invisible, from cellar to attic. A cigarette might set it off.
Telling himself he was stupid, but feeling panicked, Powell began inching back towards the opening. His worries tumbled over in his mind and resolved. His first idea, that they would not hate him if he reported what he’d found, he rejected. They would find a way to make this his fault. It occurred to him the sabotage might have nothing to do with the war. Old enmities and grievances could smolder even in the midst of cataclysm; they might catch fire again, when the war ended.
As his feet touched the cellar floor, Powell knew. He heard an exhaled breath, and a rustle of fabric. He threw up a hand against the flashlight beam, seeing, when Miller lowered this, that his friend had waited alone.
“Jesus Almighty, Kenzie, look at you! I knew you were up in there. You raised a cloud of dust, moving around.” Miller took him by the arm, hustling him along. “When you get upstairs, you gotta clean yourself up. Use your canteen.” Miller trotted him to the top of the cellar stairs, and on to the first-flight landing. He stopped. The lieutenant was fair-haired and short. He looked up into Powell’s face, his own amazed and pitying. He shook his head, deciding not to trust Powell, and began walking him up the next flight. “We agreed we’re not gonna say anything. It’s okay.” And Miller added, “Powell Kenzie, we are all in the shit pile together. Keep that in mind.”
The shock was prolonged this time. He was paralyzed, he thought, or he would have lifted a hand, to shade his eyes from the overwhelming glare. The headache was a jackhammer at the base of his skull; the light a fog filling the room. Powell was cold now, where before the attic had seemed too hot for a blanket. He needed to wake from this dream. He might not be as sick as he felt—all that could be part of it, an illusion.
I will let you call me Lettie, if you know me well.
You may kiss me in the moonlight, and I’ll never tell.
No, I’m not a lass coquette-y with the village swells—
The light diminished. He raised his head from the odd position in which he’d fallen asleep―neck twisted sideways, brow jammed against the wood frame of the cot. She was there, wearing a black cloak, her hands clasping it at her throat; and against the slanted roof beams, its darkness seemed the entryway to a tunnel. Her face was a pale oval, and to Powell, her closed-mouthed smile might have been Isobel’s. He supposed he was making things up to himself. These were only forms of shadow and light. But he’d heard her sing, in a quavering lilt, to a tune that jingled like an old-time piano’s.
“Your name,” he said, and wondered if he had seen her features sharpen; eyes that were distinctly eyes, meet his, “is Lettie.”
“There is an easier way in,” she told him. “You know the place.”
Continued from “You know the place”
Powell rubbed fingers over the knob of spine between his shoulder blades, where a new pain seemed to have rooted. “Lettie, go haunt Dennis Tovey. I’m not the one who wants to know.”
The first rattle of the window glass waited for Powell’s attention, pushing from outside the preoccupation of his mind. He was weighing her response, and remembering.
He had talked about the cellar, eventually.
“I think I made a mistake. But it might not be too late.”
Some of the things Powell had recounted were only scenarios invented. But he’d said so. He’d explained to the doctor that coping with Breedman was easier that way. And that he’d become a little obsessed.
The window rattled again, gripped by an insistent hand and shaken three times. Wind might produce such an effect. They ought to have believed me, Powell thought. He lay on his stomach again, and looked up, at heavy dew drip down the glass, one stripe, then a second, then a little wash of it. Through this clearing showed a discouraging paleness. Daylight meant a deluge of other people’s business. He pushed himself to his knees and peered out. Rohdl was there, crawling around where Lettie had told Powell to look.
“Hey there, Mr. Rohdl.”
The air buzzed with humidity, and Powell, hands out, balancing on treacherous wet grass, taking deep breaths to dispel the ache in his head, could detect no breeze. He bent to see what Rohdl was doing. Rohdl remained on his hands and knees, parting clumps, these half decayed from the winter past, half renewed with spring growth. He had uncovered something. Powell saw a grating, an iron grid angled a foot or two above the bank of the stream.
It caused him a surge of pain—neck, shoulders, and temples—but he jumped down into the streambed, and crouched beside Rohdl. He touched the grate, laying his hand flat on its surface. The air from the tunnel was cool, not cold. Powell told himself he must only imagine dread seeping up from the dark, numbing his fingers. He sat back and looked at Rohdl. For all Rohdl’s unwashed stench and raggedness, his eyes were attentive. Powell understood this wish to retreat, to disappear. And when no hiding place could be found, to hide inside oneself. But Rohdl must know.
“You were there, on the day of the accident,” Powell said.
Rohdl put his face to the grate. He saw rays of sun, broken by the grid, cast on the tunnel floor disparate shapes, like small pale figures.
“Well, we’re on fire.”
Davis Drybrook had said it, and punctuated the words with a chuckle. Not that Drybrook misunderstood the seriousness of the matter. This chance, this emergency of which to take charge, seemed to brace him. His shirtsleeves rolled and his tie loosened, Drybrook had been walking the floors, issuing orders. He seemed nervous as well, and as Rohdl hurried past, had suddenly gripped Rohdl’s arm, adding, “I was told it’s on one of the loading platforms. Nothing to do with the lab.”
“For one thing, you will want to shut off the ventilation system, however.” Rohdl, edging away from Drybrook, had smiled uncomfortably. Drybrook frowned. He dropped his hand. Rohdl had not himself felt that they were in danger, but he preferred to recover his notes from the lab. And he had not had another conversation with Drybrook. He did not think he had.
He might have known the one he’d spoken to. There was life there still. Rohdl had tried to bear the suffering and the humanity in mind, and not the horror. He’d bent to the face and said, “Can you speak to me? Is there anything that you can tell me?”
“The accident,” Rohdl echoed.
Powell climbed to the footpath, hearing a car come up the drive. He stretched, and saw emerge, then vanish, the flank of Lloyd Guy’s Ford. Guy, Powell figured, had something to say to him about the Toveys. What did he need to ask Rohdl? Not what had happened, but what unresolved aspect of the explosion, and the work that had once been done here, still had the power to threaten.
“Do you need a hand up, Mr. Rohdl?” he asked.
“Well, I suppose I will return to the house.”
Powell caught him under the arms. For a moment they stood, facing one another, and when Rohdl began a slow shuffle upwards, Powell asked:
“When did it happen? What day?”
“In May.” Rohdl spoke with an air of surprise. “Yes, May the sixteenth, four years ago.”
That the anniversary drew near must, at any rate, please Lettie. “But you’re here, Mr. Rohdl, you…” Powell recalled what Summers had said. “You have something in mind.”
“I believe that it will all begin again.”
“You can appreciate, though, that I’m caught up in this, too. And I don’t know why.”
“First,” Rohdl said, “you consider the answer that will satisfy you most. And the facts will not support it. So you say, ‘this is not the answer’.”
Powell knew this look on the face of Mrs. Lessing’s sister. Her brows cinched as she smiled with the corners of her mouth resisting. He thought he might as well not offer to shake the Keegans’ hands. Keegan stood behind his wife, his in his trouser pockets. Mrs. Keegan held a basket over one arm, and flicked her free hand uncertainly, finally landing it on the basket’s handle. Powell’s own hands were muddy. The Keegans would have been briefed by Lloyd Guy to expect something half-civilized when he introduced them to Powell Kenzie.
“The Keegans,” Guy said, palm bumping Powell’s shoulder, encouraging him to move into the parlor for a private talk, “are here to keep the place lookin’ decent. Now I got you back in the house…” He scratched his neck and remarked, as he viewed Powell from an angle, “I never took to sleepin’ in ditches. Maybe it gets to be a way of life.” He went on. “Mr. Connolly read you through all them paragraphs that are legally bindin’ on you, now you signed the contract?”
“You understand you got a job now. Mrs. Drybrook wasn’t handin’ you over charity. Kenzie, you gotta make yourself presentable.”
“I got more to say to you.”
“About Dennis Tovey, Mr. Guy.”
Here again, Powell found himself over-explaining.
This bravado cowed him. Powell carried a flashlight, and followed Tovey down the hill. He would have to step ahead and lead; he knew the where the grate was, and Tovey didn’t.
“Hold up,” he called out.
Tovey carried a mallet and chisel, rather than the sledgehammer he’d proposed. He heard Powell, or chose to listen this time, and stopped, but noticed in an instant the trodden grass, the scuffed earth, on the bankside where Powell and Rohdl had earlier explored the grate.
“Yeah, this is good,” Tovey said, taking a leap. “Throw me down the light.”
Powell instead jumped down himself and saw Tovey bend to lay his tools on the grass. When he straightened and looked up, Powell handed him the flashlight. “I hope,” he said again―it had taken him twenty minutes or more to decide on this―“Isobel is feeling okay? She wasn’t tired from all the work yesterday?” He’d been deeply disappointed at Tovey’s showing up alone. But on the verge of asking where Isobel was, Powell had reconsidered. Maybe he shouldn’t care. He distrusted the smile that now bloomed on Tovey’s face.
“Eh, Bel ain’t gonna work herself too hard. Did more tidyin’ up for you than she does at home. But don’t you worry about her.” He pointed his finger at Powell, cocking it sideways like a gun.
“Do you want to know,” Powell asked, “how I found out we could get in the tunnel this way?”
“You got a pocket knife?” Tovey had his own knife out, and was hacking at the grass obtruding the grate’s edge. “Too bad. Use your hands, then. Help me clear this away.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I know you’re done up in your Sunday best, Kenzie, but we talked about this job yesterday.”
Powell squatted so as to avoid kneeling in dirt. He tugged at a plantain.
“Shut up,” Guy had told him, Powell grateful for the excuse to do so. “Don’t take nothin’ to run you around, Kenzie. I won’t say for you to lock the door on the Toveys…’cause you won’t never, I know that much. But I want you to look at how they do, and pay attention.”
He’d enumerated the faults of which Powell was already aware. The Toveys had taken his money. They’d thrown him a party in Mrs. Drybrook’s house, an entertainment forbidden by a contract clause of which Powell had just admitted knowing. They’d inveigled him, therefore, into a conspiracy against his employer.
And did he expect he’d be getting more money for gas and groceries, any time before the month’s end? No, sir…not no matter what.
“You know where the Toveys live? No, son, you don’t. You gon’ get ’em to loan you a buck when you’re starving? No, son, you ain’t.”
And here he was, still at it, keeping his appointment with Dennis.
But Alfin hadn’t really taken the money…he’d returned of it in change a little less than half, and with that Powell had bought at the thrift shop the underwear and socks he’d needed, also a second hand percolator. At the grocer’s he’d bought coffee, butter, a jar of applesauce, two loaves of bread. When Powell walked up from the barn, he saw Guy’s Ford was gone. The Keegans were gone, the lawn appeared trim, and Mrs. Keegan had stacked the folding chairs in a corner of the parlor…with disdain, Powell could almost believe, seeing how she’d placed them leaning with their backs to the room.
When he’d bathed and dressed, and had come down the stairs tightening someone’s unwanted belt under the waistband of Drybrook’s over-large trousers, Tovey was there. He’d disengaged a chair from the stack, set his hat on the floor at his feet, tossed his jacket loosely over the remaining chairs. He was looking at his watch. Powell, with Guy’s warning in mind, hadn’t thought he would explain everything to Tovey all at once.
He’d said, “I’ve got something to show you.”
“I’ll tell you what.”
Tovey watched the leaves tear away in Powell’s hand, and Powell, losing his balance, throw his other hand back to brace himself. “You let me do the work, and you can be the first one down. Makes sense. One of us has to stay on the outside, anyhow.”
“Do you want to know…” Powell repeated.
“I heard you,” Tovey said. “Howlin’ Fritz.”
“Nuh-uh. Rohdl knew about this vent, but he didn’t tell me about it.”
Tovey was jimmying the chisel against one of the bolts. He swung the mallet back, connected. The metal rang. Tovey wedged the chisel deeper into the cut, banged the mallet a second time, and the bolt head flew.
“This won’t be too bad.” He grinned, sitting back on his heels. “I only need three of ’em. Don’t hurt my head, Kenzie. What’s the secret?”
“Well…” He’d looked for any encouraging sign Tovey might, like his grandfather-in-law, accept Lettie as a natural phenomenon. Tovey made an exasperated noise, and raised the mallet.
He would have to plunge into it. “It was Lettie told me to look here. She said there was an easier way in.”
In silence, Powell’s partner-in-crime plied his tools, knocking away all but the last bolt.
“That one oughta snap. You take hold of the other side, and heft ’er up with me.”
Rather than snap the head, the grate detached itself, leaving the intact bolt behind; the two of them, their movements thrown out of harmony, dancing into the stream bed. Tovey swore and yelled at Powell: “Christ fuck! Let go, dumbass…it ain’t that heavy!”
It was, and anger hadn’t given Tovey greater strength. Trying to swing the grate wide of the opening, he let it fall, scooting back in a panic that made Powell laugh.
And while Tovey played the flashlight over the tunnel’s interior, Powell, mumbling in an undertone, “Just go to hell”, scrabbled back to the path, done with it. But he thought he’d felt a dome of cool air feather outwards along the frontier between underground and sunlight, to probe his face.
Tovey, perhaps, had felt it too.
He did not feel apologetic, but shoving the flashlight under his belt, pushed himself to his feet. “We’ll do this after a while. There’s a place you should have a look at. Anyways, it’s lunch time.”
He leapt up, and smacked Powell on the arm. Not mollified, Powell watched him jog downhill. He followed, counseling himself against it, and without surprise found Tovey at the Buick’s wheel. He’d come out in Alfin’s truck. Probably ran him out of gas.
Powell saw the mill gate pass; a few seconds later, the sign pointing the way to route seven. As Tovey jammed the accelerator, Powell saw him ticketed for speeding, himself answering to Lloyd Guy—why was it, after promising he wouldn’t give way to the Toveys, he had done so immediately? Not that Guy would ask.
After gliding to his favored place on Canal, Tovey banged shut the driver’s door, and lit off up the street. I’m driving back now, Powell told himself, moving neither to exit nor to take the wheel.
What have I got to do with Tovey? he asked himself, trailing Tovey just in time to see him dart inside the Crown café. The blind on the door made its customary racket, and Powell, looking across to the lunch counter, saw why Tovey’s mood had once again become jaunty. Isobel was there, in the uniform of a waitress. She smiled in answer to Powell’s stare.
“Go burn us a couple burgers, Bel,” Tovey told her, and winked.
“I’m not on the grill.”
“Make friends with the chef, then. Powell says a dollar seventy cents is all he’s got. Slide that plate down here.” Tovey jerked his head at a departing diner’s scraps―half a biscuit, one or two peaks of mashed potato, a streak of gravy, a spoonful of peas.
“Dennis…” Isobel hunched over the counter, so unsuccessful in suppressing her laughter that she smiled with her teeth showing, and in avoiding Tovey’s eye, she met Powell’s. “Well, why not? If there’s a rule against it, they haven’t told me.” She picked up the plate and presented it to her husband, who set to work quartering the half.
Where the church property ended, a stone wall, leveled so that it rose in height as the slope descended, paralleled the abandoned foundation. Powell estimated the old parish meeting-house to have been twenty-five to thirty square feet altogether; for this length, the blocks running alongside the wall framed a trough of washed out earth. Needles showered from pines overhead, soft layers of dry bedding, cinnamon in color. The pines had reached that size where their stripped trunks shot far overhead. Leaning back, Powell saw limbs of long-lived crowns, conical, black against the sky. The church had burned decades earlier, Tovey said.
“Yeah, it’s always been this way, sort of a camping-out spot. Come on up.” He waited on the cemetery’s knoll, beside a winged marker, a tablet of grimed stone; stone also enclosing the grave to mark its border. This practice of early days necessitated tidying with garden shears, rather than mowing, and the old Drybrook resting places were unkempt. Papa Drybrook, as Summers had referred to him, might be the Elias Drybrook who’d died in 1910, born 1830. Three nineteenth century Drybrooks had died in childhood. Perhaps they’d known so little of life, they hadn’t felt deprived of it, as Lettie did.
Continued from “as Lettie did”
“What’s this?” Powell asked Tovey. He knew what it was, of course. A shoe, a little satin slipper once rich sapphire, its soiled lace trim now tearing away from a strip of piping.
Tovey snorted. “Whatcha think? That story you heard from Summers is nothing new. Now and again, they even print it in the paper. Letitia Drybrook…she was the local beauty…liked doing a little song and dance at the county fair, that type of thing. Pop wouldn’t let her on the stage. People come camping out here, like I told you. Kids leave an offering on the grave, try to raise the ghost.”
Powell, lifting his eyes from the dancing shoe, read the words carved on her headstone:
b. 1876 d. 1896
Ah, dream too bright to last!
“Now, follow me,” Tovey said, “you need to see one other thing up here.”
Powell followed over the hill’s apex, down to a hedgerow planted with hawthorn, where among the leaves, he noticed a few flowers not yet fallen. They’d stepped down onto a graveled lane, one just wide enough for a vehicle to access, although the only recent use the old graveyard had known was this―a place made level against the hillside and marked with a flat piece of polished granite, angled up like a writing desk, on which nothing was written.
“They say,” Tovey told him, “but it’s never been confirmed by the trust, this is where the victims of the accident…the bodies that couldn’t be identified…are buried.”
Powell didn’t care if Tovey laughed. He meant to uphold his end of the bargain; his intention was not to force a delay. But he had only just been given this white shirt. He rolled and pocketed his tie. He folded his jacket and lifted it to a mossy dry spot along the footpath. He untucked and unbuttoned, and took the shirt off. Folding this neatly, also, he laid it on top of the jacket.
“Okay,” he told Tovey.
There was nothing in the tunnel. No hidden cash or secret papers…Powell knew it already. He had reasoned it out. His belt caught on the edge as he eased backwards through the vent; freeing himself, he felt his toes connect with the floor. Tovey, on the outside, crouched like a catcher at home plate, hovering his hand above Powell’s wrist. Powell slid onto his knees. Here, where daylight exposed the tunnel’s construction, he could see it box-shaped, in dimension even, both width and height somewhere between four and five feet, its ceiling supported by steel beams.
He rose halfway, taking the flashlight from Tovey. The hand in which Tovey proffered it, his arm and his face, filled the vent and blocked the light. He backed away, the light returned, and Powell thought he heard voices. From the cadence, he would have guessed Lloyd Guy’s. But another man also, neither of them close at hand.
Tovey said, “Kenzie, you okay for a minute?” He disappeared from Powell’s view.
The tunnel’s builders had negotiated the hill by means of flat gangways connected with ramps that plunged at relatively steep gradients. Powell stayed bent with a hand flat against the wall. He could see well enough until he’d reached the first mill-ward ramp’s foot. He switched the flashlight on, swept it ahead and around. Nothing hazardous loomed. To conserve the batteries, Powell switched the light off, and crept on in darkness. He came to another ramp. This, he calculated, would take him below Mill Road. He heard faint, occasional plinks, that echoed more insistently as he approached the next gangway. His shoe came down with a splash. Exercising great care, Powell withdrew the light from his belt, seeing what he’d expected—standing water. But along the tunnel’s left hand side, this had receded, and here Powell could thread his way forward. He had nothing but the wall to lean on for support. He must be surefooted, taking his time.
The time it took seemed to Powell unending, and he perceived—hands splayed spider-like, fingers groping for tiny depressions in the concrete—a deepening of the light’s absence, the cessation of a noise that hadn’t made itself apparent, until this silence fell. But now, at last, the ramp ascended. He must have traversed beneath the road…the mill’s grounds, he asked himself, were how close to this? But the end would depend on where the entry had been.
The concrete gave way to brick, perhaps that earlier war’s work Tovey had told him about. Powell’s fingers slid over something gummy. A vague scent, undefinably loathsome, was released by his touch. He moved another few feet in darkness; then, overtaken by a tense disquietude, pulled out the flashlight, and shined it on the floor and the walls. Bringing the light close to the bricks’ surface, he saw bubbles pimple the glaze…much of this broken, flaking away. Further ahead, some of the brickwork had been denuded of glaze altogether, its surface crazed with fissures.
And interlocking rings of the same foul soot marbled the walls, a pattern showing a strange liquidity. On the floor, Powell saw two lines of charred, brittle stuff fallen from the steel beams—
He saw finally what the flashlight had not picked out at first—a human form…another…and another. They were not corpses abandoned in this place. They were only traces, outlines, of lives that had ended here—indelible records seared by fire.
He put the light out, tucked the flashlight into his belt, patted the wall down to the floor, walking hand over hand along it, hating what he touched—but at all costs he could not get turned in circles. At a brisker pace, he moved back down the ramp, telling himself he couldn’t see the good of it. If Tovey brought down a flash camera, Powell conceded, he might obtain leverage. No newspaper would print such a picture, but the Drybrook trust might pay for the negatives. And any sum might be a lot to a Tovey…even a couple hundred bucks could be regarded as seed money—a toe, at least, in the water of some future scheme.
Slipping a hand in his trouser pocket, Powell fingered what he’d picked up. He was no judge of carat weights, but the diamond seemed to him fair-sized; it had glinted from the tunnel floor, just as his flashlight bulb had flared and dimmed, warning him the batteries were going. They’d missed it. The work had been too gruesome for such minute attention, or the diamond had, in the way of things, worked itself out of cover.
He hesitated, puzzling. He was certain he’d come up two ramps already.
One coming down, two up…or, not that exactly…he’d counted from the opposite way…two down and one up. Only he hadn’t in full consciousness counted at all; that he ought to have occurring to him just now, too late. He’d got distracted with his thoughts. Powell stalled, suddenly, realizing.
It made no sense that he’d missed the vent. He retraced his steps, hands searching near the tunnel ceiling, where the opening must be. He could not have been below ground for as much as an hour. The distance was not that great. The daylight ought to shine like a beacon.
Again reaching the bottom of the second ramp, he risked the weak beam of the flashlight, and saw the water’s perfect mirror quiver in response to a wave of impact, a truck passing overhead. One he hadn’t quite heard. Slowly, heel to toe, he walked back up. Pellet-sized objects crunched under his shoes. He squatted, and rolled a piece between his fingers. Here were bits of dirt and gravel, scattering the floor just at the wall’s edge. He’d fixed the position of the vent wrong in his memory. Not overhead, but pitched a degree or two inward from the side. Something was shutting out the light. He kept contact this time, drawing his fingers along the high part of the wall; then, troubled at finding it restored, touched at last the metal grid of the grate. He pushed his fingers through, and felt a covering layer of cold metal.
He tried anyway. He shoved with both hands, and all his strength, and gave up, finally, with a sort of wonder. They might have bolted the grate back into place. Powell considered the possibility of a well-intended mistake, and could not believe in it. Tovey had said he’d be gone for a minute. Two others had been speaking close by.
Continued from “speaking close by”
The world, Powell thought, contained every kind of criminality. He’d known this, of course―everyone did. He patted the wall again, taking himself along in utter darkness, up the next ramp, making for the Drybrook cellar, his only hope.
He had come down into this tunnel; he’d followed Tovey’s instructions, trusted Lloyd Guy and Mrs. Drybrook, even up to a point believed in Lettie. But he had not believed that anyone would target someone who had nothing to do with them, who was no threat to them, who wanted nothing from them, who meant them no harm. He had not believed anyone would do this; he had not foreseen it, and likely enough, Powell supposed, he would not survive it.
He saw that disorientation would be death. He might claw at brick until the flesh of his fingers had been torn to the bone, and if he’d got himself lost and misdirected, he would flail in vain―at the indifferent hillside, rather than the cellar wall. Yet, the highest ramp did not end as Powell had envisioned. It opened into a chamber. Feeling out the dimensions of a doorway, and the wall turn back on itself at a right angle, he groped his way to an adjacent door. This seemed locked. His panic grew. He came to the room’s terminal wall and found, only a foot or two high and built rough, with brick ends exposed, another way. He thrust through an arm, and couldn’t tell by the temperature of the air whether this was a tunnel or a shallow hole, a cache for supplies.
This underground warren had been designed for holing up, for withstanding some prolonged enemy assault. They had done a thorough job crafting its intricacies, and Powell would never know which wall was the right wall.
“Who is that?”
“Rohdl,” Powell said. That Rohdl had jolted him by speaking was immaterial; his answer might, to Rohdl, have done the same. They couldn’t see each other. “Is there a way out?”
“I suppose”—by the volume of his voice, and his unwashed smell, Rohdl was coming closer—“there would have been two ways out. I would not consider the vent. I came in that way. They have also closed that off.”
Powell felt a hand pat his arm, and put his own hand on Rohdl’s shoulder. “I mean…”
“You mean, will they allow us to escape? Mr. Kenzie, I believe they hope for you to kill me.”
They came out to the fenced enclosure—this parking area graveled over when the new section, housing the lab, had been attached to the original mill structure, and a dormitory building razed. The jeeps used by the guards were kept here, as well as the bus that brought some of the shift workers, none now resident on site. Dr. Lealy’s and Davis Drybrook’s reserved spaces looked, in this light, somewhat ostentatious…not many of them drove private cars.
Rohdl waited with a colleague, the two of them isolated from the line workers, with whom they had nothing to do. A guard stood about ten feet away, dangling the hand holding his walkie-talkie at his side―and no one spoke. Finally, the siren was switched off. The column of smoke, coming over the top and away to the rear of the old mill, no longer churned; it was not black now, but ashy grey. Dr. Lealy, the lab’s director, arrived. Rohdl had looked into Lealy’s eyes as he’d passed into the building, but his chief had not lifted a hand to indicate that Rohdl, or Glass, standing beside him, ought to follow.
Except under emergency orders, they were not to remove anything from the lab. Rohdl without compunction, then Glass also, taking encouragement, had carried out their notes in any case. The security of the mill was such that all staff under Drybrook’s management—production workers, guards, grounds crew and cleaners, knew nothing about the lab; and the lab workers knew nothing about the others. Dr. Lealy, having hand-picked his own staff, allowed his chemists perfect latitude. He would have considered it a personal insult had their trustworthiness been questioned. Not that Rohdl or Glass had had anything in mind other than the preservation of a lifetime’s work.
As with any event sudden and surprising, the first explosion occurred in the midst of ordinary preoccupations. Perhaps ten minutes after Lealy’s arrival, Rohdl and Glass had exchanged yet another look. There was nothing much they could discuss in front of so many others.
“I suppose it will be over soon,” Glass observed, and Rohdl shrugged, noticing that already, where route seven climbed in the distance, a chain of vehicles―cars, trucks, motorcycles, even one or two locals on bicycles creeping along the verge―could be seen. The smoke had attracted curiosity seekers.
Like a round fired from a howitzer, but with a greater magnitude, a deep and sonorous rumble shook the earth beneath their feet. A row of windows on the mill floor exposed a flash of brilliant light, and when the orange flame came rolling a second after, Rohdl winced and cowered under a peppering of shards. Those standing in the parking area gathered tightly, pressing the fence, no longer clustered in their workplace divisions. The shower of debris ended. They stretched on their toes, and stared. And within too little time to acclimate or plan, the second, truly cataclysmic explosion had blown the roof from the mill, sent a shock wave that knocked Rohdl over at Glass’s feet, Glass falling across his back…the rain of hot cinders lasting for what seemed an age.
Tamping bloody handkerchiefs to their faces, they had appealed to Mr. Guy for permission to leave. Guy, after a phone call―that at the time Rohdl had hoped was to Dr. Lealy―with the back of his hand grudgingly waved them off.
“All right, then. You’uns go ahead.”
Rohdl hadn’t known at the time if Guy had gleaned anything from hearing their names, and didn’t know now if Guy remembered this encounter. He had been deputy to the chief of security at the mill, busy moving about everywhere, determining the scope of the disaster.
Only this superior of Guy’s, Dr. Lealy, and the Davises Drybrook, knew, in theory, about the emergency orders. These were sealed at the Drybrook office, somewhere in town. But the lab’s staff―each having in the event of an accident, an assigned task―had been told the secret as well, along with Mrs. Drybrook, informed of necessity. Her husband had suffered a stroke some months earlier.
Rohdl ventured a private word with Glass.
“The damselfly…” he said, and found himself embarrassed, hesitant and flushing. Before speaking the code name, he had looked conspicuously over his shoulder, in the direction of the hill, where the Drybrook house sat. He supposed he had no gift for clandestine work. But Glass understood him.
“Yes, you and I ought to go speak to Mrs. Drybrook. With her husband in such a condition…all this,” Glass had faltered, “will be a shock to her.”
And so they had been the first to investigate the tunnel.
Powell thought it might not be that cold. He was shivering in his undershirt as though he’d been caught out this way in mid-winter. He knew outside it was warm. He curled up tight as could be. He was thirsty, and unwilling to move. He was hungry, and there was no help for that. But there was water. He might be too far lost to find it again.
He asked Rohdl, “Did they figure out what caused the accident?”
“You, I suppose,” Rohdl said, “knew nothing of the first war. All that was over, and you had not been born. My country was prohibited, in the days when I began my work, from trade in certain commodities, and the manufacture of certain materials. The great interest was in discovering therefore some ersatz formula―for fuels, medicines…every sort of industrial use. Well, the Americans, eventually, became interested in this, too.
“I was not so much trying to escape. I did not believe I was in danger. However…” Rohdl paused. The darkness seemed to render him lucid, comforted, perhaps, as Powell had always been, to be sheltered in a dark place, away from noise and discovery.
“…my work to me had taken on the quality of a cloistered life, if you see. I came here, and my days were spent no differently. I saw few people outside the lab. The purpose of the work existed only in terms of abstraction. But you cannot escape. Even if you are only an ersatz fugitive.”
“Did they find out…” Powell tried again. If he never understood Rohdl’s meaning, it would make not much difference; it was enough, in these last, isolated hours, to hear another human voice.
“Dust,” Rohdl told him. And, after a moment, added, “Well, I oversimplify. They had installed the ventilation system only in the new construction. The old mill was something like a barn. A big, open space, is how I mean to describe it. The day-to-day production had filled the ductwork with dust. Drybrook ordered the ventilation system shut off, to keep oxygen from fueling the fire. But, when he believed the fire was controlled, he gave an order to turn it back on.
“Now you see how I became an apostate to my old religion. It was no use to say I had nothing to do with killing, that my work might save lives, and therefore my choice was rational. Fate is not rational, but she turns the card, and so you have what you are given.”
Powell asked: “Why should they…do you mean Mr. Guy…want to kill you?”
“Well, if they stated their intentions among themselves, they would never say so. They might say they wanted to help me. But you see how we find ourselves, Mr. Kenzie. I was seen taking papers from the lab. Mr. Guy, also, when he knew more, may have thought of this. Of course, though they won’t believe it, all my notes they have in their possession. I was given a new assignment. After four months, I left it, everything behind. I did not go to work that day. But, you see, Mr. Kenzie…the story was told. Because I might have some secret…they could not satisfy themselves that I did not…I would be watched.
“Now. They did not lock me up. Then, for one thing, they would bear the expense of it. You see that a man who is a stranger, and foreign, who attracts attention, hardly needs watching at all. Mr. Guy and Mr. Summers can learn what they like of my movements, from everyone who sees me about. But, during the war, and the year or two after, when the world was unsettled, they believed I would contact someone, or someone would contact me. Now they have made their plans, and they find it convenient, finally, to be rid of me.”
“The thing is, in answer to your question,” Summers reached for his coffee cup. Isobel watched him discover it empty, and saw animation―as much as she had ever observed on Summers’s face―illustrate the pity of it. But she would not budge.
“I told you, Mr. Summers, I would heat the last of the pot, but I won’t make more. Mr. Baker trusts me to close for him, and he’s only just hired me. And if you knew what he said to me this afternoon…”
Her grandparents had lived in one of the little company-built houses along the river bottom. Now privately owned, where once they had been so many identical boxes, these sported straitened touches of individuality—an aluminum carport, a screened porch; here and there, an extra story. She’d telephoned an old neighbor, asking Mrs. Wert to carry a message to Mr. Summers, Lloyd Guy’s tenant.
“No, I can square things up with Baker.” Summers shrugged. “I know Mr. Baker. But never mind the coffee. What I’m saying is, Davis Drybrook wasn’t a real Communist. Drybrook…”—he paused to light a cigarette—“was a personality type I call a ‘key player’. Not the same type as the guy who wants to be a hero. The hero would like someone to give him a medal. The key player just wants to take charge. He wants to make the crucial call. When he was a college boy at Princeton, Drybrook wasn’t important enough to be important…he was only the mill owner’s son from Hicksville. But the Communists were outsiders, and Drybrook―without being either an intellectual or a natural politician―could work his way up, within their group. It was the fact they were a group, that he could be a participant, mattered to him. He wasn’t a guy who would sit around reading about ideologies and getting his passions stirred. And I’ll let you know for free,” Summers pointed his cigarette at Isobel, “that distinction tells you a lot.
“See, young Davis had a particular gift. It was the thing I liked about him myself, and I got to know him pretty well. If you introduced him to someone, recommended a restaurant, gave him a business tip, he’d fire off a little note―‘Just to let you know what a help you’ve been’―that sort of thing. Anyways, makes people proud of themselves, knowing someone listened to them and took their advice. And it paid Drybrook back. When he was working Chicago, he was all in and among the Reds. But they liked Drybrook, they trusted him. Likeable guy.”
“So you say he wasn’t a real Communist. He was a sort of rat.”
“He,” said Summers with dignity, “was an agent of the U.S. government. Well,” he conceded, “more of a contract worker.”
Distinction or not, Isobel hardly cared for it, but she was not rushing Summers.
“Listen…I don’t give a rat’s ass,” Baker had instructed her, in a speech that had contained, mixed among his gripes, a word or two of praise, “if a guy wants to prop up the counter all day, so long as he’s a customer. But this ain’t the city park. If the guy’s just yakking, ya gotta sell him something, or move him along. I had a gal,” Baker wiped the counter, and threw the towel over his shoulder, “let her relatives come sit, just taking up space.”
Isobel understood, gossip being what it was in a place this size, that she might call herself Gilshannon, but Baker knew perfectly well her relatives were Toveys. She’d told Alfin—“But Dennis is innocent, truly Bel, if you’ll consider. He’s got a right to be getting his own back”—she appreciated his news that Dennis had been picked up on charges of criminal trespass and criminal damaging of property belonging to the Drybrook trust. Then she’d told Alfin her job didn’t entitle her to offer free meals to friends. She had no intention of asking Baker for hours off. She would spend no portion of her wages on her husband’s troubles. And if his own family couldn’t raise bail, or if―likely enough―they decided, after raising the money, that the spending of it would be wasted on Dennis, he would have to lump it, and hope also for a court-appointed lawyer.
But, as she’d gone about her chores, she had thought about this dilemma. They were not all, the authorities, hard of heart like Lloyd Guy. She knew of one who could get her in after hours if need be, to speak to Dennis. Mr. Summers was himself an agent of the U.S. government.
He stood before a subterranean lake, black as obsidian. But now and again, as though the orchestra tuned its instruments, the shivering note of a violin or a piccolo would coincide with an expansion and compression of the lake’s surface. However, Rohdl thought, he ought not to be hearing Dvořák, but Verdi. He had come to this place at last. For so many years, he had seen it from the height of the balcony. It was Beauty, that which moves the soul, so undervalued…the waltz-like allegro of the symphony in D-minor, that he heard.
And a great chorus must hide here, thus these voices murmuring; they were too deeply ensconced in shadow to be seen. Only Beauty, bathed in white light, waited for him on the lake’s opposite shore.
“You will have to cross to me,” she said. “You didn’t care for the idea when I came for you at the river. But there is no other way.” She looked at him, and though the breadth of the lake separated them, her eyes…her celebrated eyes…seemed to meet his own. And they were not spectral, but rimmed in tears of compassion.
“I,” she told him, “was once very sorry to learn it myself. I woke, and I was no longer cold. I felt well. There was no wind, and the sun shone through the fog. I believed I would rise and walk up the hill. Oh, my beloved, how odd it was…”
Lettie, in the looking glass, looked at Lettie in the bed chamber.
A lifetime of flattery reduced one to a state of docility. She was bored with it. She shifted her gaze to the window, and thought of the river. Away in the distance, she saw a puff of steam, a train crossing the bridge―and that was more promising. This morning the sun had come out. The hills, which had been snow-covered for weeks, sparkled. Beauty. That at least. Her brother Davis said the barometer was falling, and the sky at the horizon had an ugly cast.
“Well, Woolie doesn’t matter.”
Her words had sounded unfeeling. Her father, with his arms crossed, stood against the lamplight. This unhappy talk had taken place in the parlor the night before. Papa had battered her down with his anger and disapproval…and without letting her get a good look at his face.
Continued from “look at his face”
“Woolie doesn’t want very badly to marry me,” she’d amended. She called her father’s favorite, John Wolter, by this name, and it suited him. His head wasn’t terribly clear.
“This disgrace, Letitia, I will not tolerate. You will go to church with us tomorrow.”
In this, she’d acquiesced, because her father would stifle her less, believing he’d won his argument. In the long run, he would either be mollified, or he would not. She expected he would not.
Davis’s wife was privileged, in her condition, to avoid church. Lettie hoped her father would be consoled by a grandchild. No, he had not won. Tomorrow afternoon, she was going to see Dennis. He had got them passage—first class, he’d boasted, on the Italie. (Lettie had kissed him, though it was her own emerald collar he’d sold.) She would sail in a day, supposing the harbor in Boston were not iced over.
In the little chapel, not much more than a mile from home, they sat on the front bench, a row of Drybrooks: Papa, Davis, Lettie, her older sister Wilda. She was hemmed in with propriety. If anyone supposed that Lettie had spent the Saturday driving about with Dennis, wrapped in the same blanket, making no secret of her choice―the sight of these straight-backed, soberly dressed, pious pillars of the community; this church-going, mill-owning clan―would give him cause to doubt his eyes. Her father might think so.
She had not panicked, none of them had, when the snow first swirled up, and gusts of wind rocked their carriage again and again. They hadn’t far to go, and the way, as Tanner said, was “tol’rably passable”. They glided into the barn; Davis and Papa helped Tanner secure the horses in their stalls. Lettie and Wilda climbed to the loft and forked down straw. Tanner filled the feed racks with hay. The storm had grown fierce by then. Smug, as though he owned those things predicted by his barometer, Davis had said, “Could rage on like this two or three days.”
And Lettie, with contrition, wondered if her thoughts towards her father had been unjust. He’d taken solicitous care of her, his pet, positioning her before him on the path, as they set off from the barn, telling her, “Hold tight, Letitia, don’t let go.” Tanner had taken a carriage lamp ahead; Davis carried the other behind. Lettie could by now see little but snow. It was not yet noon.
The light had grown grey, the belly of the storm cloud hanging low, the blizzard’s great weight sagging over them; and after a weary time, they stalled in confusion, bunching together. Lettie could see a dim lightening at the hilltop, lanterns flickering into view, that the servants had hung by the windows to guide them. They trudged, and it seemed they were no closer to the house. They had gone astray, across the hill, rather than up the path.
She heard shouting. Davis or Tanner had located the dogleg, their landmark that reconnected them to their bearings. She squeezed her father’s hand before her legs gave and she floundered, seeking purchase. And then, she felt her father’s grip relax and drop away.
“Papa!” she called, but the wind was louder. “Papa, I can’t see you!” She could see, though. Just the skirt of his overcoat, and she’d clutched at it, swimming in snow, her feet so numb she had no feeling in them. He stepped up the hill. She saw for a moment the last of his dark shape…
Her father had left her. Lettie, sinking, struggled for a while, and felt herself slide into the streambed, with the snow cascading down.
He was not in the house, this third night, but under it. Here, he was unable to fight the assault.
The sensation no longer felt like a hammering at the back of his head. Powell was only cold, horribly cold. But at last he’d been able to doze, not shivering himself awake…what he felt was almost a lack of—the end of—all sensation. His body seemed riveted to the floor. Some part of his memory understood that he wasn’t really in the cellar. He was not in his childhood hiding place in Little Rock; he was not in Liège…he had never returned there. He was not in the Drybrook house, he was someplace else. But he felt crowded, jostled. He remembered once, riding in the back of a truck; Miller able to be excited, backslapping him along the way, “Kenzie, this is real combat!”
And if he told the story to himself, a flood of noise, affecting his right temple, would not allow him to concentrate. The picture would return, and he would start again. There was a weight that scared him, in the way Breedman’s corpse had, when Powell had known he would be unable to free himself. But they had never let him know if Breedman were really alive or dead.
No one seemed to care. Snow had fallen most of the day. He was cold for that reason. Miller said, “You know, I kept running procedure through my head. They didn’t give me enough information. There was a lot of smoke down below, and Emma was with me…”
Miller, Powell thought, could not have said this. He didn’t know the man who’d spoken. He tried to sit up. He tried to control the words in his mind.
Miller’s idea was only what Powell had already taken into account. A battle wound was the avenue to a discharge. His friend had appointed himself a sort of guardian, keeping Powell out of Breedman’s way, covering up for his tendency to wander off. But Powell wasn’t wandering. He’d had trouble keeping his thoughts from cycling back in the same pattern…but this pattern was of course a directive. He’d taken these signs as heaven-sent. He had a job to do before he could feel at peace.
“I made a mistake,” Powell told himself, “but I’ve got it sorted out. I have to go back and fix things.”
He’d been gathering what he needed. And no one seemed to care. He’d picked up a flashlight. In the back of the transport truck he’d found a toolbox, and extracted a wrench…not a pipe wrench, but one adequate for the purpose. Powell had taken a screwdriver, and a little piece of wire. Another private had been using this to clean his boots.
“Sure, idiot,” he’d said, noticing Powell reach for it, “take that if you want.”
Everyone had a job to do.
“Maybe you also had a job to do,” he told Drybrook. “I can’t stay here. I have to go back.”
Breedman had seen him slip underneath the truck and come rolling out the other side. But Breedman could give his orders to some other flunky. Powell stood lost in the middle of the street, and heard…a low thud. No, he’d heard someone running behind him. The artillery barrage ceased, and did not resume. This meant Panzers were coming. That was what Powell saw, fire shooting from the turret-gun’s muzzle, just before Breedman had fallen over him and not moved. Powell himself could not move, Breedman had been so heavy.
“I told Guy one time.” Dennis Tovey, with a cool wave of the hand, elbow propped on the table, disdained Summers’s offer of a cigarette. “’Cause”—he met only Isobel’s eyes—“if he didn’t see Kenzie go down the tunnel, I don’t know what he was looking at. I told him, a guy can take a walk, and maybe he sees something happens to be laying on the ground. What’s it got to do with me?”
“But, if Powell has talked to Guy himself…”
“Yeah, well, that’s why I got nothing to say on the subject. Kenzie came to me first with all this spooks and hoodoo. So now he’s invisible to Lloyd Guy. So forget it. But,” Tovey sat up this time, and with a glance, invited Summers into the conversation, “he’s soft on you, Bel, right? So get up to the house and ask Kenzie to tell you the whole story, how it was him took me down there.” He spoke these words with slow emphasis. To the extent that Tovey and his wife bothered with jailhouse discretion, Summers was uninterested. If Tovey had said, straight-up: “Look Kenzie in the eye, and when he falters, make him repeat himself, until he breaks down”―his instruction to Isobel could have been no clearer. In any case, if Powell Kenzie were available for questioning, Summers was confident he would break at the sight of Isobel, never mind tactics. Especially if she could put on a show of tears.
But he didn’t think Tovey had guessed correctly, and he didn’t think Kenzie was a confederate of Guy’s.
“What I have to say to you,” Summers told Isobel, “you may not like hearing.”
He swiveled half-way round on his stool, and dug a bill from his pants pocket. With a placid expression, Summers hauled his belly back, fitting it to the bar’s overhang. He then tucked a dollar under the edge of an ashtray. They were in a place called Doyle’s, a block from the courthouse, and Isobel had told him she didn’t know the proprietor.
“You don’t care to drive me out there tonight. Well, truthfully, I’m tired and I’d rather not go. They can’t teach Dennis any bad habits in jail, Mr. Summers. But I hope you’ll help me tomorrow. I have no car of my own.”
“Ma’am, what we need to do―the thing you won’t like―is talk all this over with Mr. Guy. Your husband’s got a nose for a story that stinks, and I agree with him there. Something’s fishy. I’m only saying, the Drybrook trust has its hand over that property. And Guy is the front man for the trust. We wanna go to him like a couple of wide-eyed innocents, and say, Mr. Guy, sir, we need your help.”
The Drybrook business office was no longer housed upstairs from the law firm of Connolly and Wolter. It no longer, in practical terms, existed. The trustees were professional men, and preferred holding their monthly meetings at a steakhouse, the Tidewater Inn, on route seven. Lloyd Guy, as it turned out, preferred holding meetings at the Crown café.
Having half-squatted in their downtown hotel for less than a week, Isobel and Dennis had reached the point of being kicked out. She had money coming, but none—as she could in perfect truth tell the manager—on her person; just enough for herself, whenever Baker paid her. And better after all that she not sleep with cash and Dennis in the same room. Isobel tied her kerchief over her hair. She did her best to shake the wrinkles from the blouse and slacks she’d worn on the day she’d arrived. She filled her purse and pockets with all she could carry; draped her nightgown and Sunday dress over her arm. The rest—Dennis’s satin robe and extra pants—would profit the hotel scarcely a nickel for the selling of them.
She wasn’t ready for Mr. Baker.
“There you are. Good job you showed up.”
“Mr. Baker, I’m not on. And someone’s waiting for me…” she began. Baker nodded towards the booth where Guy sat. Guy leaned into the aisle and flicked a hand, squinting at her scornfully.
“Take some coffee to Mr. Guy. You can do that.”
Summers was at the door, holding it open for a woman exiting, one whose back, to Isobel, looked familiar. She flung a white cloth, a wadded mass that, on the floor where it landed, unbunched itself into an apron. The door banged, and the bell rang.
Isobel came back to the booth with a cup for Summers, poured, sat opposite Guy, and picked up her own cup.
“Lloyd.” Summers held out his hand; Guy, wiping fingers on his placemat, shook it. “Had some trouble parking…” Summers paused, and with an excess of regard for Isobel’s womanhood, wedged himself next to the disgusted Guy. “Did Baker part ways with one of his gals?”
“I eat already,” Guy shrugged, drawing towards the window. “And the other’un brung the coffee.” He indicated Isobel, gesturing with his cup. “Now I was gon’ tell Mrs. Tovey…”
“She goes by the name of Gilshannon.”
Summers craned his neck. “I’m just reminding you, that’s all. Baker!”
“Ya gotta have toast and eggs!” Baker shouted from behind the counter. “I’m short-handed.”
“Tell her wasn’t me arrested Mr. Tovey. All I did was offer him a ride. And his story don’t make no difference to me. Likely, I’ll be called as a witness. That’s all there is to it. He gets his chance to tell it to the judge, and I get mine.”
“And…” Isobel heard Summers slurp at his coffee. She closed her mouth, recalling his advice about how they would proceed.
“You didn’t make the arrest,” Summers repeated Guy’s words. “The Drybrook trust employs you to patrol the Drybrook property.”
Guy watched him, withholding even the confirmation of a nod, waiting Summers out.
“But you do have some authority. The city also sometimes employs you as an auxiliary cop. That’s what you were doing when you picked up Powell Kenzie.”
“Uh-huh. You got your facts straight, Mr. Summers.”
“But…” Summers adjusted his bulk, spreading a leg into the aisle, and slumping lower in his seat. “Someone was with you…he rode out with you. That was yesterday, when you went to check the property.”
Guy smiled. “That’s what you call a lucky coincidence.”
“Mr. Tovey believes Powell Kenzie might have seen something. Apropos, if you get me.” Summers glanced at Isobel.
Guy then met her eyes, with a hardness in his own that seemed to carry a warning. “I know what Mr. Tovey says.”
“For Heaven’s sake, what would be the use of Dennis saying Powell was there, if it weren’t true?”
Immediately she knew Summers had not wanted her to speak.
“Y’oughta ask him.”
“Mr. Guy,” Summers said, “you had Mr. Keegan seal up that vent right away, didn’t you?”
Without waiting for Guy to elaborate, he asked a second question. “You know there’s gasses can build up underground? They piled a bunch of debris at one end of that tunnel, and they bricked up the other exit. Don’t you think, for safety sake, Keegan should fix the vent like it was?”
“Well, now,” Guy said, “could be.”
“The truth is, Miss Gilshannon…”
Summers had parked on Washington. As he held the door for Isobel, he explained, throwing ahead a pointing finger, “I went up the way, over to Sycamore, that little street off Canal. The Keegans live in the first house, just at the corner, practically neighbors of Mrs. Drybrook’s. I told Mr. Keegan I was curious to know why he happened to be around the place, yesterday. We’re gonna swing by and pick him up.”
The Packard accelerated. At once Summers braked and dragged the wheel. Having navigated Canal Street’s odd angle, he pulled to the curb, where Isobel saw Keegan waiting. Keegan had that sort of face which reposed into a scowl; yet he was, from what Isobel had seen of him, an even tempered man. Weighted by the hand grasping the shaft of a sledgehammer, he stood at a lean, and toted in his other hand a wooden tool box.
Keegan called out, eager, it seemed, to continue the exchange Summers must have begun—then rushed away from—half an hour earlier.
“Mister, what you were asking about…”
“Hold up.” Summers banged out of the driver’s door; circled to lift the trunk lid. “Mr. Keegan, have a seat in the back. I want Miss Gilshannon to hear all this, too.”
“What I fixed on there,” said Keegan, “is only the cover from an old coal chute. I was keeping it special ’cause Mr. Guy been saying he worries vandals might get at the grate. But you’re right enough, Mr. Summers, that someone couldn’t get out from the inside. I got ’em both bolted down.”
“Would you say it fits snug?”
Keegan shook his head, disapproving, not denying. “Mr. Guy came by, had a look when I was finishing up, and he said, ‘Shovel some dirt on, so it don’t look like anything’.” Keegan considered, picturing his work. “I’d say tolerably snug, altogether, Mr. Summers. You want me to take that off first thing.”
“I do, Keegan. Safety first.” Summers patted his gut. “Still, that wall’s gotta come down.”
Isobel, thinking of Summers’s warning to Guy, felt sickened. “Powell must not have been inside. Would he not have heard…?”
“Well”—Summers slowed the car at the Mill Road turnoff—“I’ve seen a plan of the tunnel complex. I’ve seen most of the papers they kept copies of at the Drybrook office. I’d have to say, it depends…what Kenzie might think he was down there to be doing. But don’t overlook, ma’am, someone else could have got in.”
Continued from “could have got in”
Isobel saw the water tower, the one indomitable survivor blindly standing, another rivulet of rust adding to its decay. But long before this marker fell, the trust would order it knocked over…this to herself, and Dennis, and any of the other stubborn truth-seekers, a boot in the face.
“But why,” she asked, “should Mr. Rohdl want to go in the tunnel?”
“Mr. Rohdl has done nothing but try to get in there.”
Ba-bump. She knew she needed to join Summers and Keegan in the cellar. The noise of the floorboard was echoed by a thud from below, a muted sound, here in this upstairs bedroom, where Isobel had paused in her search, knowing Powell was not here, and Rohdl would not be here. She moved to the window, and looked, this time from high on the hill, at the water tower. Her grandfather, also, might be numbered among the dead whom the mill had claimed. Isobel had never trusted matters connected to the Drybrook clan, but Alfin Doyle still saw his life owed to them, his loyalty to the man who’d first employed him, and had brought him out of poverty to America. Her grandfather’s heartfelt sympathies, once engaged in a cause, could be mulishly strong.
A time of trouble had ever been foretold by Lettie’s appearance, and it was he before whom she’d chosen to appear.
“Grandad, you don’t belong there, and they don’t want you there, and those are two good reasons to keep clear of the Drybrooks.”
“Well, Old Davis is not so bad.”
“Old Davis is the worst of the lot.”
Her grandad had driven out to the mill, and deliberately on a foggy night. He had always seen her in the fog. Before they’d even repaired the fence, all need for doing so had blown away.
Summers had yielded the labor to Mr. Keegan, whom Isobel found resting, when she came down the cellar steps. Keegan hefted the sledgehammer, glanced behind him, and motioned the two of them back. Summers wore a hangdog look, and Keegan’s face was grim. Isobel guessed the others had already concluded what she herself feared. This noise, this monstrous clang of steel on brick, would have drawn shouts from the tunnel. There was no one there. Or no one able to make a sound.
“We’re through,” Keegan said. “You better take a hand, Mr. Summers, and knock away more of that brick.” He heaved a breath, and stepped off, leaving the sledgehammer balanced on its head. Summers handed his flashlight to Isobel. The hole Keegan had made, she realized, was sizeable enough, if the one essaying it were small enough…and she knew that she was.
She didn’t shout or call out names―it seemed to her pointless. She heard the hammering begin again. This was far worse, Isobel now understood, than anything she could have visualized. She had come into a low-ceilinged chamber; at its opposite wall was a closed door, and in its entirety, the room reminded her of an air-raid shelter. She found the door scraped and balked as she tugged it open, but it had not been barricaded. Beyond this room lay a corridor. Isobel shined the flashlight down one side; here, the passage ended in another closed room, with an exit adjacent. Up the corridor she saw a similar room, and no exit. As Isobel hesitated, Keegan emerged through the doorway, and hunched beside her.
“Well, the tunnel,” he crept forward, the way she thought was towards town, and pointed with his own light, using one hand to steady himself against the wall, “is that direction. You can sorta tell from the smell that’s coming up.”
“Should I go look, and you look the other way?”
“No, ma’am. I’ll take the tunnel. Safer for you to stay up here and wait for Mr. Summers.”
She wasn’t sure Mr. Summers would fit. But she had underestimated him. A great wrenching was heard; and once having overcome the door’s sticky habit, Summers was able to feed himself into the passage.
“Don’t feel lightheaded?” he asked her.
“I hadn’t thought of it…and so, I suppose, no.”
“You have the flashlight, Miss Gilshannon. Lead the way.”
The room at this end, another low-ceilinged box, felt chilly and airless. Powell had ended up here. “No, don’t bother with that,” Summers caught her reaching for a wrist. He put two fingers on the side of Powell’s neck, just below the jaw.
“Now, this is gonna be a little tricky, getting him out of here. But don’t worry, Miss Gilshannon.”
Summers, by slinging Powell over his back, and crawling, with the help of Isobel’s steadying hand, at a turtle’s pace, made it to the narrow doorway. They met Keegan there, returning from the tunnel.
“Is this one dead?” he asked.
“Give a hand, Keegan,” Summers answered.
When they’d carried him up the cellar steps and through the kitchen door, and after Summers had dressed Powell in his own jacket, he told Keegan to take an arm. He slung the other around his neck, and they walked their patient up and down the back lawn. Isobel moved ahead of them, walking backwards, watching Powell’s face for signs of revival. On about the sixth circuit, he looked up at her, with dilated, unfocused eyes, and said, “Emma.”
“Isobel,” she told him.
“Drybrook says he bought the diamond for Emma.” He shook his head. Summers looked at Keegan. They’d stopped moving during this exchange.
“Well, let’s go a little longer. I don’t like putting him in the car just yet,” Summers said.
“It’s all right.” Powell spoke, his awareness of the other three unclear. “I made a mistake…and Emma wants Dennis to have it.”
“Emma? Could he mean Dennis’s mother?” Isobel asked Summers, who shrugged his free shoulder. Her grandfather’s friend had been Emmaline’s uncle. Drybrook’s wife—by that time his private secretary—had been been lost among the unknown dead, missing in the accident’s aftermath.
Isobel had never suspected it of herself, until last year when she’d done it, that she would marry Dennis “Skint” Tovey’s niece’s son. Her own Dennis, to Isobel, would but rarely talk about his mother…when might he have mentioned her to Powell?
But there had been a diamond. At the hospital, they’d found it in a trouser pocket. And Isobel, who, for expedient’s sake had told them she was Powell’s sister-in-law, had accepted it―his only possession of value. She’d ruminated on her husband’s scorn for the mystical, and chose to tell Dennis just what Powell had said.
That Mr. Rohdl had been found by Mr. Keegan, dead, face down in the water at the low place where the tunnel passed beneath Mill Road, Lloyd Guy flaunted; this, he claimed, far from countering his instruction to Keegan, proved him right.
“Vandal…or someone up to no good…gets at that grate, bound to lead to an accident. What I said.”
He’d driven out to the Drybrook house, and with his Ford blocked the drive below, discovered to have done so just as they were heading into town. Guy summed up for Summers, through his cranked-down window, “Even a crackpot like Rohdl deserves the same justice as anybody else. You ain’t gon’ find anyone says so more’n me. A thing like that is an invitation.” He’d caught Isobel’s eye, saying this, and showed her his teeth, a smile that in its intimacy bore promise.
Summers had given Guy, through his own window, a cool nod.
Guy was laying down this talk, Dennis believed, because he planned to return with another, far more serious charge.
“Once, see, it was only the Drybrooks we were contending with. Now you got a picture, how cozy money gets with the law. I thought my old granny would deal…” A short laugh. “Maybe she would, if it was just her.”
“Dennis, you should have it out with Mr. Guy.” Isobel had urged this on him. “You know what will happen. Time will pass and he’ll make a legend out of his version of things. Just like your brother…” For once, he could not interrupt. “Yes, that’s what I mean to say…your brother Davis! Like that…and like the old story of Lettie has become a legend. No one knows the truth any longer. What will you do, then, if they pick you up ten years from now?”
“But they won’t,” Alfin told her. “We’ll be far away. We may even go abroad.” To Alfin, Dennis’s plan forecast grand adventure. They looked alike, Alfin and Dennis—a witness catching a glimpse of one, and confronted with the other, might be fooled into a contradiction. And Alfin, keeping himself at home with his Dad, had managed a spotless record thus far.
Before the two of them left, Dennis pulled out his wallet. Isobel would have been astonished if he’d handed her money; instead, he’d given her the diamond, and with an echo of shame on his face, remembering how he’d wept over it.
“You keep that Bel, ’cause I’ll end up selling it someplace on the road. I never gave you a ring. And you know”—he’d tapped Alfin on the arm, signaling it was time to go—“what Powell got from the spooks could be true. Bad luck crossing up a ghost.”
“This is not what I expected.”
The visitor had been warned by Lloyd Guy to wear sturdy shoes. He had flown over the site on his way down from upstate, and from that height, it had looked smooth, clean, smaller than he’d imagined. He’d held the aerial photo loosely in one hand, that black and white image marked with boundaries and notations, and glanced out the window at life. The river bend, and the river itself, shallow and pebbly during its periods of rest, arced along the property’s south and southwest edges. A ridge, scoured into bedrock, stood at the northwest corner, topped by a stand of pine.
In this part of the nation, the glacial landscape looked weather-worn and hard-used. From the air, you could see how it all related. But here on the ground, the going was a little rough underfoot. Glass crackled, and the heels of his wingtips turned against chunks of concrete.
“I dunno,” Guy shrugged, “that there’s another place like this’un, I ever heard of.”
The visitor conceded the point, raising an eyebrow. “However, you figure”—he returned to the subject that mattered—“you’ve got Tovey locked up. Well, not that exactly…you get what I mean.”
Guy chuckled. “Whenever we do pick him up, I think someone’ll teach him the sense in pleadin’ guilty. Anyways, if you do a wrong thing, and you go pointin’ the finger at someone else, how’s it make you look?”
“Well, but, you don’t find Powell Kenzie to be one of these feathers in the wind? There are a lot of Toveys locally. Swayable individuals are useful, but then…you have to make them stick.”
Guy, disavowing responsibility for the developers’ scheme, was prepared to be frank. He looked his visitor in the eye. “A section eight like Kenzie’ll never be a hero, not in the normal way of the world. And he does remember a couple things. Why wouldn’t he believe he saw Rohdl go in the tunnel…? Got to worryin’, so he went in after him? He knows he went in there. He can’t remember why. People keep sayin’, ‘Powell, you did a good job’―and he ain’t gon’ give that up, just because some Toveys wanna tell the story different. We all like the story the way it is.”
Nineteen-fifty. In two years, the visitor thought, it would begin again. Another chance to believe the start of a decade meant fresh hope for the human race. Work needed to be done here, and they could not have a prize-hungry reporter, or an ambitious politician, using the name of Drybrook as a springboard. In the twentieth century, faults (a married man’s fathering of a bastard…for example) once invariably ruinous, were growing fewer; the virtues that made reliable shields might also lose their luster. He would, for this time, accept the wisdom of Guy’s advisors.
From time to time, when the money hadn’t gone far enough, where even skipping the rent couldn’t leverage so much…meals, a night at a hotel, her daughter parked for an afternoon at the movie house…Isobel’s mother had bartered—that was a reasonable way of looking at it—and scrounged the bus fare, finally. Or sometimes begged it.
“My Dad’ll pay when she gets off. Look at her, she’s only ten.”
Well, most of the drivers had proved soft-hearted. Her schooling had suffered gaps, times she’d lived with her Grandad Doyle, crowding into his rooms on Salters Lane. Sometimes she’d stayed months with him, sometimes only a week or two. But dodging the truant officer, drinking tea with Mrs. Wert in her kitchen, Isobel had got a good education in local gossip.
Even for this, she hadn’t known the depths of the Drybrook scandal until she’d married Dennis. For five years—of warfare between them—Mrs. Drybrook (Old Davis, the bugger, keeping aloof from it all), had reared Dennis under her roof. Dennis had nothing to say of her, but that she hadn’t been grandmotherly.
“It was like two sides of a coin,” he’d begun, and then changed the simile, struggling with it. Her Dennis, Isobel smiled, was a creative wisecracker, but a man who did not otherwise compare things to things. “My mother was like one of those rose bushes the old lady grew. Every time there was a flower, she’d run out and snip it off.” He didn’t explain further, and Isobel, for having in her isolated childhood read a great deal, thought she understood. Emmaline had been pretty and passive, grown so through her in-laws’ years of assault; Mrs. Drybrook elderly and orderly.
But she’d tried being a second mother to Dennis—one who was all rules.
“Nothing has changed,” Mrs. Drybrook told Isobel. They were having coffee, but only her guest had been served. Mrs. Drybrook was in her chair, her afghan on her lap. She touched the little blue vase, still on the windowsill where Isobel had left it. “We have a contract. And Mr. Kenzie may recover sufficiently to do his work. If you and Miss Arthur are willing…”
Lois was a bit heartbroken that Alfin had thought so little of her, after all. He’d kept company with her in an indifferent way, and she hadn’t grasped it, that he’d tried passing her off on Powell.
“I have my job at the Crown, but Lois is willing to stay at the house, so someone will always be there.” And though propriety, under the circumstance, ought not trouble Mrs. Drybrook, Isobel added, “We will both be there at nighttime.”
“Davis,” Mrs. Drybrook said, “had certain ways he preferred doing things. I didn’t always agree with him, Miss Gilshannon. You have been told that the house goes along with the rest of the property. The buyers have rights to it all.”
“We all could find a place for you, if you wanted to come down and stay with us.”
Into the silence of the under-furnished room, Powell Kenzie’s words fell flat and uncommitted. After each passage of five minutes or so, one of them―Powell’s uncle, who had spoken, or Powell himself―dredged from his discomfiture, a remark. Powell’s difficulty was greater. He understood, that at the surface, his uncle’s words were conventional: things he believed manners and family obligation required of him.
If Powell lost his uncle’s friendship, he would have lost nothing much. He ought to say, “No, thank you.” But he might as easily speak to the underlying concern…what he knew to be the truth: “I will not dispossess you of your house, or embarrass you in front of the neighbors.”
They had got his service record, Powell supposed, when he’d been unable to fill out forms. If asked, he would have told them he had no next of kin. The fear that preyed on his uncle’s mind, was that this machinery of bureaucracy, kicked into gear by Powell’s destitution, and driven by his infirmity, would seek out the elder Powell Kenzie, and―at his age―take his living, reduce him to poverty, make him care for this nephew. His only home might otherwise be attached to pay bills. As it happened, Mrs. Drybrook was paying the bills.
All this was complicated, and Powell couldn’t give either answer. Two or three weeks had passed since he’d been taken from the tunnel, and his mind still spun with the flood of strangers’ messages that had troubled him there. To say a coherent thing demanded concentration. Powell could judge, by Lois’s haste in finding some housework to busy herself with, and by Isobel’s pitying eyes, that at such times he collected blocks of syllables; tried ordering them in logical sequence before they’d vanished, he looked blank and unresponsive, more damaged and stupid than he really was. It was only that he needed time to see his words as though written on the page. And then he needed to say them.
When they’d learned—he’d touched his temple where the pain was, his tears indicating the strength of it—about the miserable headaches he had endured for three nights, the doctor, along with the specialist who tested Powell’s reflexes and vision, seemed to doubt whether hypothermia, and the tunnel’s bad air, could account for all his symptoms.
The two bedrooms, his and the girls’, had been furnished down to the new curtains, theirs also with a telephone; and Isobel and Lois scavenged day by day to fill the place up. Mr. Keegan and Dennis Tovey—Alfin’s father who’d seen Lettie—had carried this sofa into the parlor. The small-framed Tovey at once dropped his end of it. The thump awakened a fragment of memory. Powell had come down the stairs and stood, his head bowed over the seat cushions, staring…until Tovey felt the need to say, “Makes the place more of a home, having someplace to sit. The ladies will like that.”
He’d thought of Breedman. The noise reminded Powell. He’d been crushed under Breedman…and then he hadn’t, the conversation taken over by Drybrook. Drybrook seemed to move in and out of both scenarios.
“Is he there?” Powell had asked, certain, by some intuition, that Drybrook understood his question. But “no” wasn’t proof of Breedman’s being alive, unless you knew how things worked in that place. And with all these notions burgeoning at the same time, he’d remained standing mute. Mr. Tovey had slipped away.
Powell sat now unspeaking next to his uncle, and as the minutes passed, the elder Powell became restive.
“Son, do you hear me?”
He watched his uncle rise from the sofa and pick up his hat. “Ma’am,” he called out, and Lois, seated across the room on one of the folding chairs, looked up from her magazine, her face mildly peeved.
“I believe I’ll head on back to town.”
“I will explain.”
Powell hadn’t meant to say that. He’d meant to tell his uncle, “I’m sorry to be like this”, or only, “goodbye”, but as he’d reached for the words, the voice from the tunnel had overwritten them.
“You are busy with contrivances, seeking order in patterns. You number the years, though countless years had passed before your kind was known on earth. You see portent where a thing occurs in coincidence with another thing; when by happenstance the web shivers. The spider does not catch every fly. Place a cage over an anthill. The cage is a structure. It is ringed with points of intersection. The disturbed ants will scurry this way and that. An ant collides with a rib of the cage, a scrabbling automaton connecting with a structure superimposed on a patch of dirt. No, if you measure and count ants, all your work is only contrivance. If you find a coin of gold on the street, will you expect to be rich, supposing thus, that gold lies on every street? What can you know? You view your systems from within your systems.”
Lois had got to her feet, ready to see Powell’s uncle to the door. She listened, her left shoulder edging back, her head tilted. And then, gradually, she relaxed and straightened. She eyed Powell with puzzlement, rather than fear. He heard the front door close. His uncle’s store of conventional manners, in the face of this fit, had run short, Powell guessed. All these sentiments, or philosophical musings, and a great deal more in the same vein, belonged to the other world. Some spirit unknown to Powell, who was not Davis Drybrook, had these things to say. He wished it would stop.
“What do you mean, all that about systems?” Lois asked.
“I didn’t kill anyone. I keep asking if it was my fault.”
“Well, of course not. You were trying to help.” She spoke as a staunch defender. Bemused by this, he looked down into her face. Somehow, he’d come out and said what he meant to say.
He had been told, at length, “This Breedman is not here among us.”
And Lois might not understand that his words had any meaning. He thought about Lois, who always sat here with him. He thought he might try the experiment…of speaking to her, again.
“Lois…” He hadn’t been outside, in the sun, for days. The words failed, but he took her arm and led her to the door.
Note: Rohdl remembers a line (L’aborrita rivale a me sfuggia) from Verdi’s opera Aida. The inscription on Lettie’s grave is from Edgar Allan Poe’s “To One in Paradise”.
(more to come)