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Authors: Jeffrey Ford

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BOOK: Crackpot Palace
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“You gotta lose this fucker now.”

The Impala suddenly accelerated. Len whooped and called, “Faster.” Marty was hunched up over the steering wheel, peering into the dark.

“They're definitely on our asses,” said Len. “Turn in at the glass factory.”

“I don't know where the turn is. You're gonna have to warn me.”

“Okay, okay, okay . . . Now!”

Marty cut the wheel. The back tires skidded sideways and the car did a one-eighty. He put it in reverse, turned around, and they were headed into the maze of sand dunes.

“Go to the right,” said Len. “That's where it gets crazy.”

“You know your way through here?”

“Nobody knows their way through here. I used to play here as a kid and I'd get lost and turned around all the time.”

“How's that gonna help us?”

“Make a left after this next dune. Twenty minutes of driving around in this bullshit in the dark and that guy's gonna forget all about us and go home. Just keep dodging him for a while and then I'll get us back to the road.”

“That plan sucks.”

“That's its strength.”

“Oh, shit,” said Marty. “I'm past empty.”

“You're kidding,” said Len and leaned over to look at the dashboard. “Oh, man.”

“I forgot to gas up.”

“That's just fuckin' dandy.”

“It's running on fumes, should I try to make it back to the road?”

“No, go deeper in. We'll hide somewhere with the lights out. Make as many crazy turns as you can.”

“I don't like it.”

“When the car craps out, shut up. We're gonna run silent, run deep.”

The Impala died in a cul-de-sac bounded by three enormous sand dunes.

“Kill the lights,” said Len. “Crack a window so we can hear better and then turn everything off. That guy's probably home having a beer right now, cursing us 'cause we gave him the slip.”

Len unzipped his jacket and reached down the front of his shirt. He cocked back his chin and pulled out a large scabbard and knife on a leather strap around his neck. Taking the strap off, he removed the knife, ten inches, with a hunting blade and grip guard, and stowed it up his jacket sleeve, hilt first.

“What's that for?”

“Whatever,” said Len. Then he whispered, “I remember, once we had Uncle Fun surrounded and he managed to give us the slip . . .”

“Run silent,” said Marty.

They sat quietly in the dark. Off to the east an owl called.

L
en and Marty stood ten yards in front of the Impala. Three guys in black hoodies and ski masks surrounded them. The one in front of them held a .22 pistol with a homemade silencer on it. Marty shivered and clutched the yellow grocery bag. The moon was gone from the sky. Dark clouds raced and it smelled like rain.

“What you two have to learn is that if you harvest glass down here, you need to pay us fifteen percent of your take,” said the guy with the gun.

“Are you ladies pro-eel or something?” asked Len. “I mean the outfits. You look like eels. It's the first thing I thought when I saw you.”

“Nobody's pro-eel, asshole. We're pro-cash. We poach the poachers. Like the food chain.”

“That silencer have a wipe?” asked Len.

“What difference does it make? I could shoot you with a cannon out here and nobody'd know.”

“Listen, I was born down here,” said Len. “I have as much right to these eels as you do.”

“Wait, man, listen,” said Marty. “It's just like a tax. Everything has a tax on it. So we pay for eight grand, twelve hundred or something. Let it go and let's get out of here.”

“I'm not paying anything,” said Len. “He can suck my glass eel.”

“That's it for you,” said the guy in the mask, and he raised the gun.

Len ducked as the shot sounded, the gruff sudden cough of an old man. When he sprang up, he had the knife in his hand. In one swift motion he slashed the blade across the wrist of the masked man's gun hand. The sharp metal bit in deep and severed the tendon. The gun dropped. The guy screamed. Marty, pissing his pants, turned and ran.

Len took a backhanded swipe and the blade tore open the throat beneath the ski mask. Blood poured and the scream turned to a gurgle. Len pivoted to follow Marty and was hit in the left side of the head with a baseball bat. He staggered sideways a few steps before his feet went out from under him. The masked guy with the bat took off after Marty while his remaining partner stood over Len and drew a .22 with a silencer from the pocket of his hoodie. Len's jaw was busted and jutting to the side. He blinked and grunted. The cough of the gun sounded twice.

Marty worked like crazy to climb the dune but he got nowhere. Finally, he turned and lay back against the slope. He held the bag of money out toward the two masked men who stood only a few yards below him. One held a flashlight trained on the painter. The other held the pistol.

“I just wanted to fix my fuckin' roof. Take the money.”

“We're gonna throw your bodies in an eel pond,” said the guy with the flashlight. “In August when the old ones head to the Sargasso to spawn, you'll go with them.” He laughed, high pitched and insane.

Marty quit weeping. “Uncle Fun?” he asked. “Is it you?”

“This loser's lost his mind,” said the gunman to his partner. “I'll give you Uncle Fun,” he said to Marty and pulled the trigger three times.

A Note About “Glass Eels”

Joyce Carol Oates, editor of the anthology
New Jersey Noir,
where this piece originally appeared, told me that upon first reading my story she thought the phenomenon of glass eels was completely fabricated, making the story surreal. So much of Jersey is like that, from the statehouse to the Barrens. I have to thank Kevin, Hiroko, and Chieko Quigley for turning me on to the history of the glass eel trade in South Jersey, which was altogether real. I do want to say one thing about the character of Len, which might add some insight to his nature. “Do the math” is what I'll tell you concerning him. It was a great pleasure to get a chance to write a story for Joyce Carol Oates, whose stories have entranced me for years and whose book
Wild Nights!
is my idea of a perfect collection. A tip of the hat in thanks to Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, for allowing me to use “Glass Eels” in my collection long before it should have become eligible. If you're a noir fan, check out Akashic's exemplary series of anthologies organized by locale, from Brooklyn to Haiti.

The Wish Head

S
tan Lowell was awake at 6:10 on that Saturday morning near the end of September when the phone rang. He'd been up half the night, sitting at his desk, nursing the phantom pain in his ivory foot. Lately, he'd gotten into the habit of taking morphine pills. When he'd started in midsummer, one would do the trick, but he'd graduated to three as the cooler weather came on. Dr. de Vries never would have approved. Luckily, the amputation site flared up only once a week, no more, no less. Always sometime after midnight. Which midnight it would be, though, was ever the question. The drug never eased the infernal ache, somehow separate from his body but no less agonizing. He sat through each episode in a stupor, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock and the wind in the oak outside the study window.

On the third ring of the phone, he looked up and realized the pain had fled, as it usually did, at the first sign of daylight. Only on overcast mornings did it linger past breakfast. Stan scrabbled out of the chair, shook his head, and rubbed his face. He hobbled across the study and lifted the receiver.

“Lowell,” he said.

“Coroner,” said a quiet voice on the other end of the line.

“Detective Groot?” said Stan.

“Death never sleeps.”

“Where?”

“You know where Hek's Creek runs along the west side of the Polson place?”

“The fishing spot,” said Stan.

“Yeah,” said Groot. “Bring the camera. I'm heading back out there now.”

“I'll meet you there.”

Stan dressed in the only suit he had, a brown one, which he kept cleaned and pressed for official county business. He had a hat that matched it pretty well, which he hardly ever wore, and a mustard-colored tie held in place by a gold clip in the shape of a honeybee. Last, he put on the circular glasses, which did nothing for his vision but did, as his late, former boss Dr. de Vries had predicted, in conjunction with the suit, convince the citizens of Midian County of Stan's “relative intelligence.” By the time he slipped sock and shoe over the ivory foot, which had the scrimshawed image of a devil beneath the heel, his left calf muscle had unclenched and the stiffness had worked itself out. He grabbed his bag and the camera and, no longer hobbling, but moving almost gracefully, left his house. Out on the porch, he felt the cold and stared out at the giant white clouds above the yellowing treetops. For a moment, he forgot where he was going.

He drove through the center of Midian proper. In addition to it, there were two other towns, Hekston and Verruk, that comprised the county and thus his jurisdiction. Situated along the Susquehanna River, north of Chenango, it was the smallest county in the state of New York, and existed only due to the factories of Madrigal's Loom, “manufacturers of fine woven products,” and some ingenious gerrymandering on the part of politicians. Each of the three towns had a main street, a factory, and a few neighborhoods. Midian, slightly larger than its brethren, had the hospital, a movie theater, and the county library. Factory towns nestled amid farmland and sugar maple forest.

Leaving town, Stan passed the first of Madrigal's redbrick monstrosities, its smokestack jutting into the blue sky. He thought of the three factories as hives, one in each town, abuzz with electric weaving. De Vries had told him that old man Madrigal had been the father of Midian County. “At times the place bears a striking resemblance to the jackass,” he'd said. Whatever shortcomings William Madrigal might have had, though, it was clear enough to all that without his commerce, the twentieth century would never have taken hold in that locale. Thanks to Madrigal's tenacity, the modern age had sunk its roots and slowly spread like the forest. Now, even in the midst of the Depression of the 1930s, Madrigal's sons kept it all going through a combination of cuts in workforce, hours, and wages. In addition to their sheer determination, they counted on those roots to keep the whole enterprise from sliding away down the river.

With the banks of the Susquehanna in view, Stan took a left and headed up a steep road canopied by orange leaves. Halfway to the top of the hill, the pavement ended and the road turned to dirt track. Off to his right, through breaks in the trees, he caught glimpses of the sparkling flow. At the top of the hill, a meadow was fenced by a stone wall, which, he'd once been told, dated back to the 1700s. He spotted Groot's black Model B and a Midian squad car pulled over to the side of the track. He parked behind them and grabbed his bag, strapped the camera around his neck.

The meadow grass was loaded with dew and a light haze drifted just above the ground, although the sky was clear and bright. He noticed red leaves on the stand of trees that hid the creek, and realized winter was closer than he'd thought. Up ahead, a short, bald man, stocky, in a long black coat, the hem of which trailed in the wet grass, took four steps into the meadow, stopped, flashed a silver lighter and lit a cigarette. His face was as wide as Edward G. Robinson's, his lips turned down at the corners.

“Morning,” said Groot as Stan approached.

“What have we got, Detective?”

“A floater,” he said and took a drag. “But, ah . . .” Groot looked off to the west. “There's something different about this one.”

“What?”

“You've got to see it for yourself,” he said and turned back, smiling.

As always, Stan was disconcerted by the dark round birthmark at the center of the detective's forehead, often mistaking it for a fly. Whenever Stan glanced at it, he had the sense Groot was watching him.

They walked in among the trees and due north to the creek.

“The waterline's way up since the flood in July,” said Groot. “Two kids came fishing this morning early and found the body. They ran back to town and their parents took them to the station. Loaf is watching it so it doesn't head downstream any farther. We left it in the water for you.”

“Officer Lougher?” said Stan. “Midian's finest?”

Groot smiled, shrugged, and flicked his smoke away onto the fallen leaves. The water came into sight and Stan was surprised to see how much it had risen. They stepped into a clearing along the bank and Officer Lougher turned and tipped his cap to Stan.

“You'll want to be seeing this,” said the cop and waved for the coroner to step closer to where the willows hung over a natural pool. It was a legendary fishing spot, a centuries-old depression where the water was trapped and turned slowly before rejoining the swifts of Hek's Creek.

As Stan drew near, he saw something pale, slowly turning in the calm green eddy. The surface was littered with willow leaves, here and there a yellow one from a maple, and amid this debris of autumn floated a young woman, faceup, naked, her long black hair fanned about her head. Her arms lolled peacefully at her sides; her legs were slightly open, dandelion seed in the black tangle of pubic hair; her breasts peaked above the waterline. Stan noticed no obvious signs of corruption in the flesh, but the open eyes still glistened, the startled gaze of the recently drowned.

Groot sidled up next to the coroner. “Every time I look at her I think she's alive,” he said quietly.

“She's not,” said Stan.

“It's the smile,” said Lougher. “What's she smiling about?”

“Risus sardonicus,
” said the coroner. “A spasm of the facial muscles after death. But this isn't the usual grin. The eyebrows aren't lifted, the mouth isn't open, her teeth aren't showing. Instead, she looks like she's lost in a fond memory.”

“I thought she was mocking me,” said the cop.

“She's got a secret,” said Groot.

“She's certainly got something,” said Stan. He raised the camera and unlocked the bellows. “I'll get a couple of shots of her in the water and a couple on the bank here when we pull her out.”

“I looked around a few hundred yards along the creek in either direction. Didn't see anything. She probably washed down from Hekston. The creek's deep enough since the flood,” said Groot as Stan snapped away.

Stan lowered the camera. “She'd have been in the water for quite a while,” he said. “I'm surprised she looks as good as she does. No noticeable bloating. What time did the kids find her?”

“About five thirty,” said Lougher.

“Okay, Loaf, let's get her out of there,” said Stan.

The officer leaned over and lifted an eight-foot wooden pole with pulleys and, running its length, a stiff cord with a small noose at the end. “I haven't fished here since I was a kid,” said Lougher as he dangled the noose out above the young woman's left foot.

“Be gentle,” warned Stan and handed them each a pair of gloves.

“Like a mother,” said the officer as he reeled the body in.

Groot joined them and they hoisted the dead girl onto the bank. They moved her with such ease it was as if she were simply sleeping. Her skin was as cold as ice and yet firm to the touch. She exuded an aroma of flowers.

“Roses,” said Groot.

“Wisteria,” said Lougher, who then sniffed again and changed his verdict to “Lilac.”

Stan stared at her expression. Her face was undeniably beautiful but the smile now appeared more wistful than serene. A hint of loss had at some point crept into it. He set the camera down and got on his knees next to her. Moving her head carefully from side to side and lifting her shoulders, he looked for the pooling of blood—lividity—caused by the posture of a corpse in the water. There were no signs in the usual spots for a drowning victim. This meant the young woman had floated, flat on her back, most of the way from wherever she'd come, and yet rigor mortis hadn't seemed to set in yet.

“Pretty recent?” asked Groot, lighting another cigarette.

“I can't tell,” said Stan. “Could be. No wrinkling, no foaming, no trace of insects. When you guys get her to the hospital, I'll take a look at her and see. Most unusual, though,” he said, lifting the camera. He backed away and snapped a string of pictures.

Groot walked him halfway across the meadow.

“I'm going to the diner for breakfast,” said Stan. “I'll be over to the hospital in about an hour or so.”

The detective nodded. “The body'll be there. I'll come for the lowdown when I get off this afternoon.”

“By the way,” said Stan before turning toward his car, “how's your wife doing? Last I saw you, she wasn't well.”

“Oh, yeah, it was just the flu. She told me the other day that she's ready for me to retire,” he said, his fat face slowly forming a grin.

“What'd you tell her?”

“I laughed,” he said and laughed without making a sound.

S
tan limped over the uneven ground back to his Chrysler. On his way to town, he recalled the summer's flood—sudden, massive, and devastating. People had lost houses, cars, pets. He'd seen more than a couple of floaters, as Groot called them, that week in July, but none of them looked like this girl. As he drove along, he played Best Guess. Someone up in Hekston would ID her from the photos. The loom there had been hit the hardest with layoffs, and since the flood a bad spirit pervaded the place. Murder, suicide, an ill-fated accident, none of them would surprise him in the least. As he pulled to the curb outside the diner, he dismissed the foul-play theory as preposterous. De Vries had always told him never to trust a best guess.

Stan sat in his usual seat at a table by the window that looked out on the corner of Ninevah and Oak. Bissie Clayton brought him his free coffee.

When Lowell had returned from Europe, the only one of twelve young men from the county to make it home alive, it was late winter, 1919. He was on crutches, still weak from the effects of the mustard gas, and the father he'd meant to please by enlisting in the Marines was dead. Junietta Poole, the girl he'd been going with, had run off to New York City with his cousin. His mother was losing her mind, and his older brother and sister had fled to Binghamton and Syracuse respectively. He couldn't find work; who wanted an amputee? One day during that dark time, as he was passing the diner, Bissie came out onto the sidewalk and called to him.

“You're the boy from the war,” she said. “Lowell.”

Stan stopped and nodded.

“Whenever you want, come and see me for coffee and a meal. Don't be shy,” she said.

He thanked her, but it was weeks before he took her up on it. He waited till he was desperate for a decent meal. Bissie was as good as her word. Before he left Clayton's that day, she slid a piece of paper along the counter to him. On it was a name and address. “Go see this fella. He wants to talk to you about a job,” she said. Even after he started working for de Vries, and was able to pay for his meals at the diner, Bissie never charged him for coffee. The doctor liked to recount a story about Bissie from when she was much younger and a stranger had tried to rob the cash register when her back was turned. “She beat him into the emergency ward at Midian General with a skillet,” he'd said. “Two more whacks and I'd have been doing an autopsy on him.”

“Lowell,” she said. “You're here early for Saturday.” She took a seat across from him and set the pot down on the table. There was a jar between them holding dried chrysanthemums. A fly, like Groot's birthmark, bothered the window glass. Bissie filled the seat and then some, her forearms like James Braddock's, her sparse white hair trapped in a spiral by bobby pins. On the days she made soup, she wore a hairnet.

“There was a body up in the creek,” he said. “Not for general knowledge, you understand. Off the record.”

“I already heard,” she said. “A girl?”

Stan nodded.

“I heard she looked like an angel.”

“Not knowing what an angel looks like, it would be difficult for me to corroborate that,” he said and sipped his coffee.

Bissie laughed. “You're a wiseass,” she said.

BOOK: Crackpot Palace
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