The Woman in the Woods
The bar was one of the more recent additions to Portland’s waterfront, although the term “recent” was relative given the rapid pace of development in the city. Parker wondered if at some point every person reached an age where he or she prayed for a pause to progress, although often it seemed to him that progress was just so much window dressing, because people tended to remain much as they had always been. Still, he wished folks would occasionally leave the windows as they were, for a while at least.
The presence of the bar was indicated solely by a sign on the sidewalk, required because the establishment was set back from the street on the first floor of an old warehouse, and would otherwise have been difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Perhaps this was why it appealed to Louis. Given the opportunity, Louis might even have dispensed with the sign entirely, and supplied details of the bar’s location only to those whose company he was prepared to tolerate, which meant that maybe five people in the world would have been burdened with the responsibility of keeping it in business.
No such tactics were required on this night to offer Louis the peace he desired. Only a handful of customers were present: a young couple at a corner table, two older men eating burgers at the bar, and Parker and Louis. Parker had just been served a glass of wine. Louis was drinking a martini, very dry. It might not have been his first, but with Louis it was always difficult to tell.
“How is he?” Parker asked.
“Confused. In pain.”
Days earlier, Louis’s partner, Angel, had been relieved of a tumor the size of an egg in a New York hospital, along with a length of his large intestine. The procedure hadn’t gone entirely well, and the recuperation period would be difficult, involving chemotherapy sessions every three weeks for the next two years, while the threat of ancillary growths remained. The call to inform Parker of Louis’s presence in the city of Portland had therefore come as a surprise. Parker had intended to travel down to New York to visit Angel and offer Louis whatever support he could. Instead, Louis was sitting in a Portland bar while his partner lay in a hospital bed, medicated up to his eyeballs.
But then, Louis and Angel were unique unto themselves: criminals, lovers, killers of men, and crusaders for a cause that had no name beyond Parker’s own. They kept to their particular rhythm as they walked through life.
“And how are you?” asked Parker.
“Angry,” said Louis. “Concerned and frightened, but mostly angry.”
Parker said nothing, but sipped his wine and listened to a ship calling in the night.
“I didn’t expect to be back here so soon,” Louis continued, as though in answer to Parker’s unvoiced question, “but there were some things I needed from the condo. And anyway, the New York apartment just didn’t feel right without Angel next to me. It was like the walls were closing in. How can that be? How can a place seem smaller when there’s one person missing from it? Portland’s different. It’s less his place. So I visited with him this afternoon, then took a car straight to LaGuardia. I wanted to escape.”
He sipped his cocktail.
“And I can’t go to the hospital every day. I hate seeing him that way.” He turned to look at Parker. “So talk to me about something else.”
Parker examined the world through the filter of his wineglass.
“The Fulcis are considering buying a bar,” he said.
Paulie and Tony Fulci were Portland’s answer to Tweedledum and
Tweedledee, assuming Tweedledum and Tweedledee were heavily—if unsuccessfully—medicated for psychosis, built like armored trucks, and prone to outbreaks of targeted violence that were often, but not always, the result of severe provocation, the Fulcis’ definition of which was fluid, and ranged from rudeness and poor parking to assault and attempted murder.
Louis almost spat out his drink.
“You’re fucking kidding. They haven’t told me anything about it.”
“Maybe they were afraid you might choke—and not without justification.”
“But a bar is a business. With patrons. You know, regular human beings.”
“Well, they’re banned from almost every drinking hole in this city, with the exception of the Bear, and that’s only because Dave Evans doesn’t want to hurt their feelings. Also, they help keep bad elements at bay, although Dave sometimes struggles to imagine an element worse than the Fulcis themselves. But Paulie says that they’re worried about falling into a rut, and they have some money from an old bequest that they’re thinking of investing.”
“A bequest? What kind of bequest?”
“Probably the kind made at gunpoint. Seems they’ve been sitting on it for years.”
“Just letting it cool down a little, huh?”
“Cool down a lot.”
“They planning on fronting this place themselves, or would they actually like to attract a clientele?”
“They’re looking for a stooge.”
“They’ll need to find someone crazier than they are.”
“I believe that’s proving an obstacle to progress.”
“Would you front a bar run by the Fulcis?”
“At least it would be guaranteed free of trouble.”
“No, it would be guaranteed free of outside trouble.”
“If they manage to open, you’ll be obliged to support them. They’ll be very unhappy otherwise. You know how fond they are of you and Angel.”
“Which is your fault.”
“I simply facilitated an introduction.”
“Like rats facilitated the introduction of the plague.”
Louis finished his drink and raised his glass for another.
“You know,” he said, “that news has cheered me up some.”
“I thought it might.”
“You working on anything?”
“Just some paper for Moxie. Routine stuff.”
Moxie Castin was one of Portland’s more colorful legal figures. With his ill-fitting suits and huckster manner, Moxie appeared completely untrustworthy, but in Parker’s experience only trustworthy individuals were prepared to embrace a livery that suggested the opposite. Moxie paid well and on time, which made him a rara avis not only in legal circles but in most other circles as well. Finally, Moxie was privy to most—although not all—of Parker’s affairs, including the discreet arrangement whereby the Federal Bureau of Investigation paid a retainer into Parker’s account each month in return for consultancy services. It was not a state of affairs of which Moxie unconditionally approved, although at least Parker also recognized it for the devil’s bargain it was.
“You look tired for a man dealing with routine stuff,” said Louis.
“I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“I’m not sure I can always tell the difference between dreams and reality. Waking sometimes seems as bad as sleeping.”
Parker was already recognizing signs of the onset of a depression that had shadowed him even in adolescence, but had begun to trouble him more deeply since the gun attack that almost killed him. He knew that soon he would have to seek seclusion. He would want—even need—to be alone, because it was at those times that his dead daughter most often appeared to him.
“Angel said something to me once.”
Parker waited, and it was as though Louis had heard his thoughts, or had glimpsed the flickering whiteness of a lost child in Parker’s eyes.
“He said he thought you saw Jennifer, that she spoke to you.”
“With respect, that’s not the point.”
“Like I said, I find it hard to tell what are dreams and what are not.”
“You know, I don’t think you find it hard at all.”
Slow time passed before Louis spoke again.
“I used to dream of my father.”
Parker knew that Louis’s father had fallen into the hands of bigoted, violent men who hanged him from a tree before setting him alight. Many years later Louis returned for those responsible, and burned the tree on which his father had died.
“He would come to me in my sleep,” said Louis, “wreathed in fire, and his mouth would move as he tried to speak, except nothing ever came out, or nothing I could understand. I used to wonder what he was trying to say. In the end, I figured he was warning me. I think he was telling me not to go looking for vengeance, because he knew what I’d become if I did.
“So I dreamed him, and I knew I was dreaming him, but when I woke I’d smell him in the room, all shit and gasoline, all smoke and charred meat. I’d tell myself I was imagining it, that these were all smells I knew from before, and the force of the dream was just tricking my mind into putting them together. But it was strong, so strong: it would be in my hair and on my skin for the rest of the day, and sometimes other folks picked up on it too. They’d comment, and I wouldn’t have an answer for them, or none they’d want to hear, and maybe none I’d want to hear either.
“It would frighten me. Frightened me for most of my life. Angel knew, but no one else. He smelled it on me, smelled it after my nightmares when I woke up sweating beside him in bed, and I didn’t want to lie to him, because I’ve never lied to him. So I told him, just like I’m telling you, and he believed me, just like I know you believe me.
“My father doesn’t come to me so much anymore, but when he does I’m no longer troubled. You know why? Because of you. Because I’ve seen things with you, experienced things that made me understand I
wasn’t crazy, and I wasn’t alone. More than that, there’s a consolation to it, to all of this. I think that’s why I came up here tonight, and why I called you. If I lose Angel, I know I’ll find him again. I’ll tear this world apart before I do, and maybe I’ll die burning like my father burned, but that won’t be the end for Angel and me. He’ll wait for me on the other side, and we’ll go together into whatever waits. This I know because of you. I’ve hurt a lot of people, some that didn’t deserve what came to them and some that did, although the distinction meant nothing to me then, and doesn’t mean a whole lot now. I could have questioned what I did, but I chose not to. I have blood on my hands, and I’ll shed more before I’m done with this life, but I’ll shed it because I’m following a different path, your path, and I’ll sacrifice myself because I have to, because it’s my reparation. In return, I’ll be allowed to stay with Angel forever. That’s the deal. You tell that to your daughter next time you see her. You tell her to bring it to her god.”
Parker stared hard at him.
“Just how many cocktails have you had?”
The stillness seemed to encompass the entire bar. All others vanished. It was only these two, and these two alone.
And Louis smiled.