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Oil, explained the engineer, was a wizardly broth of decomposed mastodons bound to play an indispensable role in the present century, and I’d be rolling in Holy Roman wealth this time next year if I invested just fifty dollars in exploration efforts underway in the mammoth-laden wetlands just a few hours northwest of my New Orleans office.
“But you ought to know that already, Mr. Toups,” he continued with a smirk, “seeing as you’re a fortune teller.”
It was too early for whiskey, so against my better judgment I emptied what remained of my best Columbia into the grinder I kept in the corner of my office and started cranking. The last thing my overanimated client needed, I lamented, was coffee. But I was a different story.
Joe Panella, read the man’s card. Head Engineer, Standard Oil. When I’d awoken in my office that morning I’d found him leaning on my door wearing half a week of stubble and a paper-mâché grin. He dressed like an engineer – steel-toed boots, close-cropped hair – but as soon as he’d cracked open his lips I thought he might have been a pitchman. He hosed me in sentences longer than the Mississippi and faster than a Storyville tramp, explaining that Detective Drighton at the New Orleans Police Department had sent him my way because there’d been a string of eerie murders up at Caddo Lake, ritual killings, maybe, and that I was the sleuth best suited for the job, but that upon arriving at my office this morning he’d become very confused because the sign in my window said that I was a fortune teller and he thought that I was a private eye and so he’d almost left and…
I’d stopped him to say he’d found who he was looking for.
The crux of the matter was that two weeks ago, the third workman had been slain on a curious steel structure that some industrialists had erected on a lake west of Shreveport. Something like the oil derricks that were spouting up like weeds in our neighboring state of Texas, except that this one was built over water. Among the first of its kind, apparently. A rig, Joe called it. The victims’ arms had been severed and sigils carved into their foreheads, triggering an eruption of gossip in which words like voodoo and hex and sacrilege featured prominently. The provincials were so mortified by the notion of black magic that they refused to venture anywhere near the oil rig or the men who worked on it.
Joe’s boss’s concern was that this irrational, countrified terror was spreading to his engineers, and that if they were to strike and drilling was to cease, his company stood to lose profits fatter than a Cajun gator in a catfish pond.
“Well, we certainly can’t have that,” I replied. “You’ll need those fat profits to pay my fees.”
Joe’s brow caved in. Must have thought I was serious. I asked him what his thoughts were on the murders.
“I’m a practical man, Mr. Toups. I don’t subscribe to witchcraft and curses and all that tripe, so I’m not inclined to believe that some self-styled sorcerer could have hocus-pocus’ed these men to death from the comfort of his own home a thousand feet away. The victims were on the rig when they died, and that tells me they were killed by someone on the rig.”
“I applaud your pragmatism,” I noted as the coffee steeped. “But I presume, too, that your skepticism applies to my own profession.”
He shrugged. “I’m still not sure I understand what your profession is.”
That’s adorable, coming from you. But I decided to pocket that thought, opting instead to shed some light on my own ambiguous identity. “What does a fortune teller do, Joe? Tells you something about yourself that no stranger could possibly have known, right? That’s the tough part, because it’s the only falsifiable thing she’ll say. Everything else is vagueness and prognostication, wild predictions about your imminent success and your long lifespan and your robust progeny, all intended to leave you with a pep in your step and a hole in your pocket. But a good detective, he can do the same thing without all the frills and props. A good detective can tell you if a witness is lying just by watching her dimples. And he can tell you a dozen other things about her from how she fixes her hair or what she’s got under her fingernails or how she takes her coffee. How do you take yours, by the way?”
“Plenty of cream, please. No sugar. Thanks. So you’re saying that a detective could do a fortune teller’s job.”
“So what does that make you, Mr. Toups? A mystic with a hero complex, or a gumshoe who got tired of chasing down cheating wives?”
“I’m something of a specialist, actually,” I lied playfully. “Best palm-reader this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Don’t even need to inspect a man’s lines and wrinkles; just a single touch of your hand and I’ll suck the knowledge out of your brain like juices from a crawfish head. Which reminds me: I neglected to shake your hand this morning. My apologies. I’m barbarously uncivil without my coffee.”
The engineer smiled like a guinea baboon, prepared to play along. “Then by all means,” he declared, extending his hand theatrically. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Toups.”
“And you, sir.” After shaking his hand, I handed him back his business card. “Now please be so kind as to write the names and titles of the three victims on the back of your phony calling card.”
Calm on the Mississippi. Kink in the hose. He leaked a few nonsensical syllables, then, speechless, produced a fountain pen from thin air and set about his assignment.
I went on. “I ought to inform you – strictly for your own reference – that you’re a terrible liar. I might have pegged you for a salesman, but a salesman knows how to lie. I imagine that makes you finance? Some Texan bankrolling an oil project? And you’ve been masquerading as an engineer for what – two weeks now, at least?”
He shook his head, baffled. “Spot on, Mr. Toups. How the devil – it’s unbelievable! Truly unbelievable.”
“Only a fool believes the unbelievable, Joe – or whatever your name is.” Normally I prefer my clients perpetually mystified, but it struck me that I was about to trek four hundred miles north to Caddo Lake with this individual and that he’d be badgering me the whole way with questions about how I’d found him out. Better lay my cards on the table. “Point one: You walked in here peddling liquefied dinosaurs like they were war bonds. Engineers can’t peddle, else they’d do something easier than engineering. Point two: Your palm is softer than a handful of raw oysters and spotless as a pearl. An oil engineer’s hand ought to feel more like an oyster’s shell, with grease or petrol visible beneath the fingernails. But what really betrayed you was your coffee.”
“My coffee?” He peered into it his mug as though he expected to find a message swirled into his cream.
“Point three: An oilman likes all his liquids black.”
“Unbelie—” But he stopped himself this time. “Truly remarkable. But how could you have guessed that I’ve been posing as a mechanic for the past two weeks?”
I nodded at Joe’s stubble then tugged at my own cuspate beard. It had been as black as an oilman’s coffee once, but at some point over the past decade Father Time had stirred in some cream. “Your whiskers,” I pointed out. “Must be nearly a week since you’ve shaved. Makes you look the part, sure, but it also tells me that you’ve been at this little charade for more than a few days. You mentioned that the last of these murders occurred a fortnight ago, so it stands to reason that you interpolated yourself into the rig crew as an engineer at that time, presumably to do some investigating of your own.”
“Correct on all accounts,” confirmed Joe. “By the way, my—“
“I’m not finished. The card you showed me read ‘Head Engineer.’ The implication being that the former Head Engineer was one of the three victims. And if that’s the case, I’d say your enemy – whoever that might be – is an ambitious one. To remove the top technical man on a venture as ambitious as yours means business indeed; it means someone’s looking to topple the whole project.”
“Yes, I thought so as well. I wanted to tell you—“
“We’d better depart immediately. I suspect the sleepy citizens of Caddo Parish have grown restive in your absence. We’ll be traveling by rail, I imagine. Do you have your bags packed?”
“Yes. I really should—“
“Excellent. There’s a ten o’clock to Shreveport. If we hurry, we can meet at the station on Esplanade in one hour. Is there something you wanted to say?”
“It’s just that I never told you my real name. It’s—“
“Galloway,” I finished for him. “Joe Galloway. It’s engraved on your fountain pen.”
Silence at last. I had drained the Mississippi.
But during the hour we spent apart a monsoon of words had replenished my new client’s verbal reservoirs, so that by the time we boarded the train to Shreveport he was positively brimming with conversation. I learned after enduring several tirades that erecting dams is no way to quiet a man like Joe Galloway; rather, your best bet was to dig canals as quickly as possible so as to divert his tidal rhetoric in more useful directions.
It was by employing this strategy that I converted one of Joe’s jeremiads on his family’s hereditary baldness into a constructive discourse on the similarities of Lake Caddo’s three murder victims.
“…And as I’ve said, Mr. Toups, every male Galloway since time immemorial has lost his first patch of hair precisely at the age of thirty-five, an age which, I regret to say, is just ten months distant, though I don’t suppose the loss of my hair must come on the very day of my birthday, seeing as there’s another eleven-odd months—”
“Weren’t all three of the Caddo victims bald?” I interjected.
“Why, no, certainly not… wherever did you get that idea? They were quite hirstute, in fact, as many oilmen are. Two of them were very small men, though. Short, I mean, and considerably thin. That, at least, is one affliction that the Galloway family—“
“Short and mute?”
Joe blinked. “What?”
“Were they mute, too, Joe? How is it that no one heard them scream?”
“Can’t say, though I’ve mulled over that question many a night. That’s when they must have died, by the way – during the night. Most horrifying things occur during the night. Always have, I suppose. Anyway, each of the engineers was found at dawn’s first light, hanging from a crossbar on the rig. Just dangling over the water. Swaying in the breeze. Must have been a traumatizing experience for whatever poor soul had first spotted him. I’d wager you couldn’t be certain that it really was a man until you got pretty close, what with the missing limbs and the gouged-out eyes. That’s to say nothing of the mist that clings to that swamp every morning, thick as a French Quarter hangover. Then, when you do get close, to see that bloody symbol carved into his forehead, staring down at you like some unholy eye – Christ, I imagine it’d be too much to stomach.”
“Severed limbs, you say. Cleanly, as though sliced with a blade? Or ragged and torn?”
“Somewhere between the two. Cut with a saw or a serrated blade. That’s what the town doctor believes, at any rate.”
“Each man was small. Each was found hanging from the rig, mutilated in the same fashion. What else was common to all three?”
“It may mean nothing,” qualified Joe, leaning back in his seat. “But all three of them were found on a Monday morning. At least they got out of a week of work. A gauche thing to say, I know, but I’d be infinitely more disappointed if I were murdered on a Friday, with the whole weekend—”
“Three consecutive Mondays?”
“No. The first two were consecutive, the second having occurred a month ago. But the third murder occurred two weeks after the second – just short of two weeks ago, as you already know.”
My head was spinning. “Today is Saturday,” I noted, more to myself than for Joe’s benefit. “We’ll get into Shreveport this evening. How much time will it take us to connect to whatever dreary little lake town we’re headed to?”
“Mooringsport. And we won’t be connecting, as they haven’t finished construction on the railway there. Tomorrow morning we’ll be taking a riverboat up the Twelve Mile Bayou. It’s a six hour ride, give or take, but the scenery is so breathtaking it’ll feel more like—“
An eternity, unless I find you a muzzle, I thought.
There are scientists who believe that man evolved sleep as a survival mechanism. They say that when our knuckle-dragging forebears competed with snarling, saber-toothed nightmare predators for wildebeest venison, they were safest when they lied motionless in the dark, amid the shrubs of their jungles or the shadows of their caves.
I wonder if they’d have chuckled, those men who slept to hide themselves from the claws and fangs of monsters, if they’d been alive to watch me use their precious adaptation to thwart the prattle of a pot-bellied, doe-eyed financier.
I tipped my head back, closed my eyes, and pretended I was a neanderthal.
I don’t put much stock in travel, and I’ve never understood vacations.
My more feeble-minded friends find this odd, even objectionable. Their imaginations are so starved, and their understanding of our world is so puerile, that to appreciate some far-flung marvel or alien culture they must go and touch it or speak to it or live in it. And so they trek to exotic kingdoms and here-be-dragons wildernesses, to the pyramids at Giza or the jungles of Brazil, only to return brimming with tales about things I already know better than they, having read some book on the subject — a book which, I remind them, I offered more than once to lend them. They smile and offer some asinine riposte (“Books aren’t the real thing, Arlen!”) then go about recounting some story for the third or fourth time, changing details unknowingly, forgetting already their “transformative” odyssey through darkest this or distant that.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Most of these whimsical fools live in manufactured Chicago or asphyxiated New York, and to them travel is a form of medicine, a reprieve from their poisonous metropolises. Not everyone, I must remind myself, bathes daily in Storeyville’s salutary delirium, nor follows the debauched, caducean second-line that is life in the Crescent City.
Still, for all their wanderlust, even the dimmest of my friends would never have planned a tour through Mooringsport, Louisiana.
We smelled the place before we saw it. Our boat was rounding a bend in the river when the marshes of Caddo Lake assaulted us with their effluvia: the posthumous perfume of decomposing eons tinged with sulfur from Mooringsport’s billowing smokestacks. Ironic, I thought, that the odor of Earth’s oldest carrion was rivaled only by the stench of its youngest industry.
Mooringsport, I soon learned, was little more than a patchwork of tents, trailers and sheds, assembled to afford the bleakest survivable conditions to the roughnecks and roustabouts who peopled it. There was a much older town called Ibbinville just five miles to the south, founded a century-and-a-half earlier by Creole trappers who had pursued some long-forgotten breed of furry, coat-bearing mammals to the muddy banks of Caddo Lake. They must have turned that whole furry race into outerwear, however, for now only frogs and birds accompanied the Creoles’ descendants in Ibbinville.
Our captain deposited us onto a wooden protrusion that looked more like a prototype of a pier than the real thing, and we tiptoed across its shifting planks toward the slap-dash settlement ahead.
“Are you sure your oilmen didn’t commit suicide?” I asked, plucking a boot from the mud.
My facetiousness escaped Joe, who frowned quizzically.
“Never mind,” I said. “Where are you taking us?”
“To the barracks,” he said, and he pointed to the largest building in sight.
Besmudged laborers scurried in and out of the structure, barking orders at each other, hefting toolboxes, dragging inscrutable machinery. The air around us vibrated as hammers fell, shrieked as torches kissed iron. Fires ignited and flood lamps flickered to life in the gloaming, preparing for their shift change with the sun.
For all of its squalor and entropy, this lakefront outpost was alive — alive in the same slippery, oozing, primordial sense that wombs and cesspools and rainforests are alive. It was a spawning ground for man’s innovation, a testing ground for his dominance over nature.
But as the largest beasts attract the boldest hunters, so Mooringsport, with all of its clamor and din, had drawn the foulest of killers.
I wondered, briefly what might happen if these men knew who Joe really was — that he signed their meager paychecks, paid for whatever pabulum they stocked in their mess halls. Would they make way for him? Would they tread more carefully, speak more softly in his vicinity? Would they confront him and make demands? Would their reaction reveal a capacity for mutiny, for sabotage — for murder?
No matter. It was too early to consider motives.
“I should like to see the bodies,” I said.
“The bodies?” repeated Joe.
“Yes. The corpses. The dead people. The victims. The cadavers. The –“
“I understand,” he interjected. “But I’m afraid that’s impossible. They’ve been buried, naturally.”
“Then I should like to speak with whoever examined them.”
Joe nodded. “That would be our infirmary doctor. Truth be told, I can’t stand to be around that man. He’s… well, he’s irreverent, is how I’d put it. But you’ll see. Anyway, I can take you to him first thing in the morning.”
“In the morning?” I asked, looking around. “The sun hasn’t even set. Surely he’ll see us now.”
“I suppose he will,” admitted Joe with a sigh. “Very well. Let’s set down our things in the barracks — I’ve got a room set aside for you — then we’ll see if we can find Dr. Denicola in the infirmary tent.”
The front doors of the barracks led to a large, open chamber in which tables, chairs and a narrow bar had been arranged. A few yawning workers sat at a table and played poker. Others clustered around the bar, pouring themselves drinks and exchanging lewd, slurred jokes. When they noticed us, a few of the men in this latter group waved their arms, inviting us to join in their revelry.
Joe ignored these appeals and started for a hallway, which I assumed led to our rooms. I stopped him and handed him my suitcase.
“Put it up for me, won’t you? I’d like to have a drink at the bar before we visit the good doctor.”
He started to say something, but decided against it and sauntered off.
The men smiled as I approached. One of them picked up a glass that looked like it might have been cleaned with a tar rag, spilled some whiskey into it, and handed it me. Another man shouted: “To new friends!”
“And to great hosts!” I toasted.
They all cheered at the compliment, despite its emptiness, and we clinked our glasses before lifting them to our lips. The whiskey was so watered down that I had to swill the whole glass just to taste it, and my doing so elicited more cheers from the overliquored oilmen.
“You don’t look like you’re here to work on the rig,” said a man with an especially thick beard. “No offense intended, of course.”
“None taken,” I said, amused at the notion. “You’re right, after all: I’m not here to work on the rig. And that’s a good thing, too, seeing as how I can’t even repair a kitchen cabinet, let alone build a device capable of sucking oil out of the ground.”
A few of the men chuckled. A slender, intelligent-looking youth refilled my glass and asked: “Why are you here, friend, if not to work?”
“I’m afraid it’s not a cheery subject,” I said.
The bearded man nodded. “The murders, then.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You a cop?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m a psychic.”
Several of them laughed. The youth balked. “You can’t be serious,” he said.
“Indeed I am. There’s a theory floating around that some evil magic is at work here, that some hex has been laid upon Mooringsport. I know a great deal about magic, good and evil, and I’m here to investigate that theory.”
“Well,” said the bearded man, “you’re in the wrong place, if you don’t mind me saying so. The source of our curse is clear enough: it’s those old, inbred fishmongers in Ibbinville, seeking vengeance for our interrupting their slothful, do-nothing existence.”
A few of the others grunted in agreement. One of them added: “Aye, them Ibbinville folk are the worst kind of backwards. ‘Undred years, they’ve been down there in the muck, and they ‘aven’t even built a church. A godless people is a the devil’s people, you ask me. Rob is right; you ought to go down there if you’re looking for black magic, though I wouldn’t spend the night, I were you.”
“No, no, and no,” said an older man, who had been sipping his whiskey silently up until that point. “The people of Ibbinville are backwards, sure enough, and perhaps they are godless, too. But I reckon it’s this land itself that’s cursed us. It’s an ancient place, this lake, with a history stretching back to the very act of creation. And we came here and we stuck our pipes into it like it were a cheap tramp, didn’t we? We defiled this place, and now it’s retaliating.”
One or two others nodded, and I realized that I had just heard expounded the two dominant theories on Mooringsport’s curse: either the retrograde inhabitants of Ibbinville were to blame, or else it was Mother Earth avenging her own desecration.
But the intelligent-looking youth scoffed. “Nonsense!” he cried. “Those stone-age cretins in Ibbinville can hardly feed themselves, let alone concoct a plot to torpedo a hundred-man industrial outfit. And what is this tripe about the land’s revenge? There is nothing sacred about this fetid bog. If it were the least bit sentient it would be begging us to drill more holes into it, just to put it out of its misery.”
“Well, what do you think, then, Drake?” asked Rob the bearded man, with a note of impatience.
“I think that men get killed by other men, and not by angry trees or voodoo chants. And I think that for the most part, it’s motive — and not madness or evil — that drives men to kill. And I say that the motive for this place’s destruction must be that same motive as that which compelled its creation: wealth. Or the promise of wealth.”
“Are you suggesting,” I asked, “that one of Standard Oil’s competitors may be responsible for the murders?”
“It would have been easy enough for a competing company to inveigle one or more of its workers into our ranks,” he said. “Perhaps even a hired killer.”
The young man was evidently alone in his theory, however, for the other men only shook their heads and muttered unintelligible aspersions.
“If it were only the murders, maybe you’d have something there, Drake,” conceded the bearded man. “But what about the sickness? No company could have caused that.”
“What sickness?” I asked.
“A week or two before the first murder,” explained the older man, “some of the men here contracted a kind of flu. Like the Spanish Flu that’s been going around, only nastier — coughs full of blood, pus in the eyes, that sort of thing. Couple of men died from it, though with the murders sucking up most of the attention around here, we don’t talk about them two very much. Anyway, it’s gotten worse in recent days. Must be six or seven men laid up in our infirmary, and several more shipped off to Shreveport for further treatment. Doctor says it isn’t contagious, but I trust that man like I trust a Mormon bartender.”
“And it ain’t no coincidence that no one in Ibbinville has caught it,” said one of the other men.
Drake, the skeptical youth, started to say something but stopped, realizing that whatever sensible explanation he might have offered would have been lost on his superstitious peers.
Joe returned, then, rejecting the drink that the other men poured for him, and insisting that he and I were needed elsewhere. We extracted ourselves from the friendly (if conflicted) oilmen, and exited the barracks into twilit Mooringsport, where the croaking swarms of frogs and crickets now threatened to drown out the subsiding racket of the builders and the welders.
“I thought you talked a lot, Joe,” I said.
He scrunched up his face as though I’d punched him in his nose. “Yes, I suppose I do,” he said. “I’m quite sorry about that, Mr. Toups, as I’m sure it can be aggravating, but you must understand how much I’ve had on my mind lately, and all of the –“
“I thought you talked a lot, Joe, and that’s true enough, but what’s really astonishing is how little you manage to say despite all that talk. Why didn’t you tell me about the flu, Joe? The sickness?”
“Oh, that. Well, I suppose I didn’t think to mention it. It’s nothing remarkable, you know. Actually it’s par for the course for these drills — we even factor it into the workforce budget.”
“Do you mean to say that your company anticipated that its employees would get sick?”
He shrugged. “Think about it, Mr. Toups: We send these men to very remote places — often some of the filthiest on the continent — and we ask them, quite literally, to rootle around in the dirt for wells of sludge. It’s inevitable that toward the beginning of any such venture, men will grow ill as their bodies acclimate to their new conditions. But after a while they build up immunities, and soon enough they’re all healthy as oxen.”
“Unless they die first,” I said.
“Well, that’s true,” said Joe, shifting uncomfortably. “But that’s very rare, and we do fully articulate that risk up front, before the men sign on.”
“How many deaths did you factor into the workforce budget for this project, Joe?” I asked.
“It’s not really so simple as that. See, there’s a an equation we use –“
“From what I understand, there are about one hundred men employed on this project. A good, round number that ought to make the math easy. So how many deaths, by your company’s equation?”
“Three and a half. But that’s counting accidents that incapacitate–“
“Three and a half! Well, by my count you’re up to five, now, and your project’s only just begun. That’s a man-and-a-half over budget, Joe. Or is it under budget? I suppose you don’t have to pay the men who die.”
“Please don’t make light of our losses,” said Joe, with a sternness of which I had not thought him capable. “If you really believe our company is blind or indifferent to them, you are gravely mistaken. And if you insist on reducing these five deaths to profit-and-loss, I can assure you that the costs associated with them — the damage to our company’s reputation, the compensation to the victims’ families, the disruption of productivity by the state police, your own rather exorbitant fees — far outweigh the wages forgone by our payroll department.”
“Yes,” I admitted, “I suppose they do.”
But I wondered what other “par for the course” details he’d elected not to divulge.
The infirmary tent was something out of trench warfare. Its three cots were insufficient to lodge its overflowing population. Fevered men rolled about on the ground, muttering nonsense and drooling onto the canvas. Another body was sprawled motionless in a metal chair, eyes half open, so that if it weren’t for the nearly imperceptible rise-and-fall of the thing’s chest, I’d have chalked it up as corpse number six.
Jazz blared from a gramophone in the corner. It was obnoxiously loud and inappropriately upbeat, as if the doctor here believed that the music’s braying riffs might dispel the death pall that threatened to suffocate his tent.
The doctor himself was conspicuously absent. No nurses, either. There were only the sick, and whatever demons their morphine-addled minds had summoned to accompany them.
Against Joe’s protestations I explored the room, hopscotching through the writhing bodies that littered its floor. The tent wasn’t just overcrowded; it was understocked. Half of the medicine bottles in a locked cabinet stood empty. Depleted spools of gauze were piled in a corner. A handful of thermometers steeped in a basin of grey water.
A short stack of battered, dog-eared anatomy texts and pharmaceutical references gathered dust atop a filing cabinet. Hardly surprising, I thought. A doctor with this much work on his hands could scarcely pause to wash his hands, let alone peruse his old books.
“Say, Joe,” I said, opening the file cabinet. “What were the names of the victims, again?”
He told me, and I riffled through the files until I found those belonging to Pierre Leblanc, Rudy Vaupel, and Lance Waccholz. I opened Pierre’s file first, he being the first of the murdered oilmen, and found a death certificate that listed “heart failure” as the cause of the man’s demise. Pierre’s severed limbs and excised eyes were recorded merely as a footnote, where the doctor had described them as injuries inflicted posthumously.
Under the death certificate was a medical report of some kind, and my eyes fell upon a sentence scribbled in cursive toward the center of the page: In addition to the flu, the patient has contracted jaundice.
A half-formed idea tickled at my mind. There was something faintly suggestive about the sentence at which I stared; it seemed to contain some hint that I couldn’t quite tease out. I considered copying it down for later contemplation, but remembered one of my own favorite maxims: Never employ a pen where memory will suffice.
I shifted my attention to the second file and discovered that Rudy, too, had died of heart failure. Under his death certificate there was a medical record in the same format as that which I’d found in Pierre’s file, and the same cursive script leaped from the page: In addition to the flu, the patient has contracted malaria.
Jaundice in one, malaria in the other. Curioser and curioser. I opened Lance’s file.
Heart failure, on the death certificate. And on the page beneath it: In addition to the flu, the patient has contracted leprosy.
Something boiled in my stomach. What barbarous outpost had I come to, where such afflictions as jaundice, malaria and leprosy assembled against its guests? How long had I slept on that steamboat? Had it crossed the Atlantic and meandered up some jungle river, to the bowels of savage Africa?
“Fret not,” boomed an unfamiliar voice from the entrance to the infirmary tent. “For you are not in hell, dear pilgrim, but merely its most distant suburb. Welcome to Mooringsport.”
When Dr. Denicola passed through the tent’s entrance, his shoulders brushed both of its sides and his bald scalp flirted with the ceiling. He was not a small man, Not a subtle man. Not the kind of man to sneak up on you. Not without the advantage of a shrieking gramophone to drown out the thunderclap of his footfalls.
It occurred to me, then, that the man squeezing his way into the infirmary might not be Dr. Denicola at all. He wore a stethoscope around his neck, true enough, and a pair of rubber gloves peaked like a handkerchief from his coat pocket. Even so, I had trouble envisioning this giant as a doctor of men. Of horses, perhaps. Or oxen. But I could not imagine those massive fingers stitching a wound or probing for the heartbeat of so fragile a creature as a human being.
How long he had stood watching as I flipped through his files, I had no idea. But he seemed unperturbed — even mildly amused — by my meddling, and a moment later he was approaching us with outstretched arms, kicking aside patients like they were a toddler’s toys obstructing a hallway.
“Great to see you again, Joe!” he shouted over the music, clapping him on the back. “And you’ve brought a friend! Give me just a moment, won’t you?”
With a single stride he was at the gramophone, lifting the device’s needle from the record below and restoring quiet to the infirmary. The silence was short-lived, however, for almost immediately the patients in cots and on the floor began to groan and howl, reacting to the sudden noiselessness as though they were being deprived of oxygen.
Denicola took another step and retrieved a disturbingly large syringe from a metal tray. Kneeling, he plunged it into the arm of a supine patient, who yelped, shuddered, then stopped moving altogether.
Still brandishing the syringe, Denicola marched back to the patch of the infirmary that Joe and I occupied. “Now then,” he said, looking down at me with a smile. “I owe you a proper introduction. I’m Gerald Denicola, resident healer in this godforsaken place.”
“And this,” said Joe, “is Mr. Arlen Toups, a spiritualist from New Orleans.”
Denicola laughed aloud. “A spiritualist? How novel.”
For all his menacing scale, the doctor possessed one of those youthful, highly expressive faces that are popular with women and utterly useless at poker. He seemed genuinely cheerful, despite the conditions of his employment.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Denicola,” I said. “But unless there’s some blissful hallucinogen in that syringe, I’d be much obliged if you’d set it aside before I shake you hand.”
He quickly disposed of the frightful implement, laughing uproariously as he did so. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Most well persons have been avoiding this place like the plague of late, so I’m afraid my manners are out of practice.”
I was about to reply when the grinning doctor stepped forward and, quite without warning, took my chin in his hands. He turned my head from right to left, inspecting each cheek and ear. Satisfied with my face, he shifted his examination to my beard, which he rubbed between two fingers as though it were some rare sediment.
“Healthy enough, this spiritualist,” he said. “But entirely corporeal. Between forty and forty-five years old, I’d say. Drinks too much. He may live in New Orleans, but he’s not from there. Open your mouth, Mr. Toups.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t come here for an inspection, Dr. Denicola.”
He shrugged. “I was only offering a quick check-up. You can never be too careful, ‘specially in a place like this.” He swung his hand in an arc, indicating the bodies littered throughout the tent. “Easier to keep a well person well, you know, than the other thing.”
I stole a glance at Joe, who was staring at his own feet and fidgeting uncomfortably.
“Don’t keep me waiting, Mr. Toups,” said Denicola, nodding toward the files I still held. “Tell me that you’re as fascinated as I am by the medical histories of our late, brutalized colleagues.”
“I’m not sure ‘fascinated’ is the right word,” I said. “Confused, maybe. Surprised, certainly.”
“What is fascination if not the sum of surprise and confusion?”
“That’s awfully fuzzy math for a doctor, doctor,” I said. “Another man might speculate that surprise and confusion add up to fear.”
Denicola chuckled. “I think I could speculate with you all day, Mr. Toups.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But for now I’ll settle for your speculation on what happened to these three men.”
He shrugged. “You know as much as I do, if you’ve read the files. Those men were veritable petri dishes when they died, chock full of plague and infection. Christ, the corpses were so pregnant with disease that we had to incinerate them on the spot, as Joe has likely told you. Each of the men had contracted a severe case of the swamp flu, along with a host of minor bacterial infections. Then there were the more, well… unusual ailments.”
“Jaundice, malaria, and leprosy.”
“Lions and tigers and bears,” said Denicola, and I got the impression he was suppressing a laugh.
“Those are serious maladies,” I said. “What would happen, I wonder, if they were to spread to others in Mooringsport?” My eyes wandered to the men turning in their cots and writhing on the floor.
“Don’t worry,” said Denicola, following my eyes. “You’re quite safe. These men are carrying none of those diseases. They’ve just caught the flu, is all. Moderate intensity. Should all make a full recovery. Except, that is, for James over there.” He pointed to the catatonic man in the chair, then leaned in close to us and whispered: “Truth is, I don’t have the slightest clue what’s wrong with James.” And this time he could not contain himself; he let loose a bellowing guffaw.
Joe’s face blanched, and he turned away from the rumbling doctor. He looked like he was on the verge of retching.
Denicola had misinterpreted the intent of my question, but I let this pass. It was not, after all, a question that he was qualified to answer any better than I. Or Joe, for that matter.
“What of the heart attacks that ultimately killed them?” I asked. “Could these have been a consequence of one or more of the men’s other conditions?”
He shook his head. “Not directly. Malaria might cause heart problems, I suppose, but its effects are more often cerebral. And at any rate, Rudy Vaupel’s case of malaria was not far advanced enough to prove fatal. Our mysterious flu isn’t the culprit, either. When it gets bad enough it can fill a man’s lungs with liquid, drown him where he stands — but it won’t stop his heart. Only thing I can think of that might be responsible for sudden heart failure, silly though it may sound, is stress. It’s just possible that after these men learned just how doomed they were, they literally worried themselves to death.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, then, and we all listened to the tortured acapella of the infirmary’s beleaguered occupants.
“Wait a moment,” said Denicola, his eyes widening. “You weren’t asking out of concern for your own health, were you? You think — Christ, do you think some madman intends to weaponize those afflictions, to infect others?”
“I think it’s remotely possible,” I replied. “Which is to say, highly unlikely.”
The doctor nodded thoughtfully.
We were rescued from a second uncomfortable silence by Joe, whose sudden girlish yelp turned our heads. We found him dancing awkwardly, trying to shake a delirious man’s hand off his ankle.
The doctor chuckled. “Relax, Joe,” he said. “He probably just thinks you’re a bottle of whiskey.”
“What about their eyes?” I asked. “And the symbols carved into their foreheads?”
Denicola frowned. “Those injuries were inflicted after death. After the victims had succumbed to heart failure.”
“I understand that,” I said. “But what do you make of them?”
The doctor’s expression drooped visibly at the question. “I have a thought or two, but — well, it’s not really my specialty, know what I mean? Isn’t it more up your alley, that kind of thing?”
“Up my alley?”
“Aren’t they related to magic or voodoo? The carvings, I mean. That’s the prevailing theory, you know.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said. “And perhaps they are. But don’t you think, Doctor Denicola, that when corpses start to show up mutilated, hanging by their necks from an oil rig, that the cause of their death might be a little more complicated than heart failure? I mean, didn’t those injuries — posthumously inflicted though they may have been — suggest to you that their hearts may not have stopped on their own accord?”
Denicola paused to let out a sigh that might have capsized a sailboat. He held up three of his massive fingers before continuing. “The way I see it, Mr. Toups, there are three possibilities. One: the victims’ hearts were stopped through sorcery, by some malevolent wizard from Ibbinville or some such nonsense. Perhaps you can credit this manner of drivel, but I cannot. And so let us remove this possibility from our focus.” He dropped one of his three extended fingers. “The second possibility, and the thrust of your present question, is that some external but entirely worldly factor — a poison, most likely — was used to stop the victims’ hearts. This is perhaps the most intuitive of the three possibilities, but for me there is an insurmountable problem with it. And that problem is this: That despite spending several days with blood and tissue samples from each of three victims, I found no such poison, no agent that could have accounted for the victims’ heart failure. Could it be that some untraceable substance was used, some newly synthesized toxin of which the medical world has not yet learned? Of course. But I cannot — I will not — found any conclusion upon unfalsifiable conjecture.” He dropped a second finger. “And so we are left with a third possibility: That the men perished naturally, and that the grotesque injuries inflicted upon their corpses were perpetrated by parties that had nothing to do with their deaths.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow your reasoning,” I said.
“When I told the last victim, Lance Waccholz, that he had contracted not only the flu but also leprosy, and that the combination of his afflictions was almost certain to do him in — well, he didn’t believe me. Wanted a second opinion. I advised that he leave town, take the boat to Shreveport where he might find a legitimate hospital or, at the very least, decent palliative care. But he just said that if I wouldn’t heal him, there was a doctor in Ibbinville who would. And he stood up and marched out of this infirmary, livid as a Brahman bull. Now, Mr. Toups, there’s only one kind of doctor in Ibbinville, and she isn’t the medical sort.”
“A voodoo woman? A mambo?”
Denicola nodded. “So I hear. Never met her myself, but there have been whispers. With all the sickness about, I’m certain that others have visited her. People get desperate, you know, in times like these. Abandon their own good sense. Now, I don’t think this — what did you call her, a mambo? — I don’t think this mambo could have stopped a man’s heart with her hocus-pocus. Don’t believe in all that, as I’ve already said. Don’t believe it any more than I believe she could have healed him. But I do think that such a woman and her adherents might be inclined to take precautions after a man like Waccholz dies. They might want to banish whatever pestilent spirit caused his death, to prevent that spirit from possessing any of Ibbinville’s inhabitants. In other words, Mr, Toups, I wonder whether these posthumous injuries — the gouged-out eyes, the strange symbols, the return of the corpses to our oil rig, which the people of Ibbinville seem to believe is the source of so much depravity — that these injuries might have been wards against some unseen evil.”
“For a medical doctor,” I said, “you seem to enjoy hypothesizing about the occult.”
“Ah!” boomed Denicola, clapping his giant hands together. “But I said it earlier: I could speculate with you for hours. These deaths, however grim, awakened creative impulses in me that had lain dormant for so long in this drab place.”
“How fortunate for you,” I said, mildly disgusted. “And thank you for your time this evening. I have only one more favor to ask. I am interested in the victims’ corpses — and particularly their defiled foreheads. Are there photographs or sketches of them that I could study?”
It was Joe, not Dr. Denicola, who answered my question. “We had them photographed,” he said. “And I have already taken the liberty of leaving copies in your room back at the barracks. You may study them to your heart’s content, Mr. Toups. Perhaps they will lull you to sleep.”
And from the tone of Joe’s voice, I realized I did not possess a monopoly on disgust.
I dreamed that I was standing naked in a lake of oil. It was a moonless night, and I could not tell where the oil stopped and the sky began. There was only the limtless black, and the cold, unstirring unction that engulfed my legs.
In the distance bubbles broke against the surface. I watched them. Minutes passed. I realized after some time that their center was shifting gradually, that it was moving toward me. When I tried to flee, I found that I was paralyzed.
I wondered what the bubbles might be. Perhaps, I thought, the mire was beginning to boil, heated by the furnaces of hell itself, which was surely situated directly beneath this strange place. Or perhaps there was some ancient, muck-dwelling leviathan approaching, a dinosaur that had refused to decompose.
But as the bubbles grew nearer I heard whispers, human tongues, and I knew intuitively that these were were the last words of drowning men, that with each sussurration a lung filled with oil and a soul expired, and I tried to remember why I had come to this place, how I had found it, who had led me here, and who these people were under the oil, giving up their ghosts. And it was there, on the edge of my mind, a soupy remembrance that might have explained it all, but it was coded, encrypted, and I had forgotten the key. And the bubbles were nearly upon me.
But I will not dawdle. Dreams are meaningful only in adolescent literature and crackpot psychology. In the real world they are neurological waste, the byproducts of our minds’ nightly purge.
When I woke in the barracks, my spectacles still rested upon the bridge of my nose, and my shirt was fully buttoned. The blanket at the foot of my bed was folded neatly.
I held three dead faces in my hand, fanned out like cards from some sinister Tarot. From the window-like confines of their photographs they gazed out at me, hopelessly lost, their eyeless sockets and yawning mouths equally vacant, a triple void where human expression should have been. They seemed more like unfinished clay figures than men, like the golems of some kabbalist whose conjuration had been interrupted before their final features could materialize.
A fourth cavity, shallow and crimson and demonically precise, formed a different symbol on each of the victims’ foreheads:
At first I’d thought they might have been numbers: zero, three, and seven. But the seven was bulbous and inverted. The author need only to have cut two straight lines; instead, he had carved three curves into Lance’s wrinkled flesh.
Besides, the symbols were vaguely familiar to me. I felt certain that I’d encountered them before in a half-forgotten book, or in one of the ersatz grimoires I displayed around my office to intimidate customers.
I had studied the symbols late into the night, but had managed only to list the things they were not: They were not Voudon veves. They were not Gnostic symbols. They were not Latin or Greek or Hebrew letters. They were not Egyptian glyphs or alchemical designs. They were not Masonic or Hermetic. They were not Indian totems. They were not —
But at some point rational thought had blurred into specious dream, and now it was four o-clock in the morning and I was wide awake, listening to an uproar of bullfrogs and crickets through the barracks’ paperweight walls.
“All right, gentlemen,” I whispered to the dead men. “It’s time we found your killers.”
I folded them into my shirt pocket, ran a hand through my tousled hair, wiped my spectacles on my shirttail, and opened the door.
Oilmen are notoriously early risers, and yet I found only one of them in the common area when I arrived there, sitting at a table in the dark, nibbling toast and drinking coffee.
I recognized him from the night before. He was the skeptical youth, the man who had so readily dismissed his coworkers’ superstitions. Drake, I recalled.
He looked up when I entered the room, scanning my wrinkled clothes and my bloodshot eyes.
“Well, hello,” he said. “Had a late night, did you?”
“Yes. We have that in common, I think.”
Drake looked momentarily taken aback — surprised, no doubt, that I’d noticed that he too wore the same clothes he had the last time we talked. But he recovered quickly and nodded. “I’ve never subscribed to the notion of sleep. Seems like a terrible waste of time.”
There was a window behind Drake, and beyond it was blackest night, punctured here and there by a pinprick of starlight. I realized as I stared out into the dark that it was too early to do anything productive. Too early to interview anyone, too early to hire a car to Ibbinville. Too early to begin work.
“I made some coffee,” said Drake, pointing to a French press resting on the bar. He grinned, adding: “Fair warning: It’s terrible stuff. Might as well drink the sludge we dredge out of that lake. Still, it’s the best that Mooringsport’s got to offer. Why don’t you pour yourself a cup and come sit with me for a few minutes? We can punish ourselves together.”
An odd thing to say, I thought. But the promise of coffee, palatable or otherwise, defeated my sense of unease. I waddled over to the bar and unshelved a highball glass, which I filled partway with steaming black liquid from the press. I topped it off with whiskey.
Drake was shaking his head and grinning impishly when I sat down across from him. “That’s one way to improve the taste,” he said.
“Normally I take it black,” I said. “But this town’s got too much black in it already.”
“No such thing as too much black,” he replied. And I got the impression that he and I were talking about very different things.
“What do you do here, Drake? For the project, I mean.”
“I designed our drill. It’s basically the same model we used out in California. But those rigs were connected to land via pier. This one is freestanding. First completely independent over-water rig in the world, far as we can tell.”
“Impressive, in a man so young. These drills must have made your company millions of dollars.”
Drake looked away at the mention of money, pretending that there was something in the void beyond the window that had caught his attention. “Aye,” he said, “I suppose they have. I’ll never see a penny of it, though. Not from this company.”
“I could put a word in with Joe, if you –“
“No,” said Drake, and his eyes swung back to meet my own. They were open wide now, full of nervous energy. “No, you mustn’t advocate for me to any of the company’s managers. Leave me to my own devices. I am perfectly content.”
“Very well,” I said. “I meant no harm.”
Drake waved a hand dismissively. “Enough about my work. Impressive though you may find it, it’s really very boring stuff. Mechanics and pneumatics. All terribly physical, entirely mundane. You, on the other hand — you dabble in a world quite beyond the limits of our mathematics, don’t you?”
“I dabble in nothing,” I said resolutely. “I am no tinkerer, Drake. No novice in my profession. As your apparatus coaxes unseen minerals from the bowels of the earth, so do I divine the darkest of man’s secrets, and the untold histories of the dead.”
Again Drake surveyed my disheveled person. “Is that what you were doing all night?” he asked. “Communing with the dead?”
I thought of the photographs in my pocket and chuckled. “You might say that.”
He smiled again, and slid his plate of half-eaten toast across the table. I took a piece and found that it was still warm.
“What about you, Drake?” I asked. “What were you doing up all night?”
“Communing with the living.”
“There is something to be said for that. Especially in a place where the ranks of the living seem to thin daily.”
“We’ve lost more men to competitors than to the sickness or the murders, you know.”
It was an angle that I had considered, but only briefly — and without any real background or context. “How so?” I asked.
“Don’t tell Joe I mentioned this. But there’s a man from San Antonio in Ibbinville as we speak. A recruiter from Lone Star Oil. He’s been there a week now, and there have been others like him to come and go, from various companies. There’s a kind of unspoken arrangement around here: As the sickness and the murders intensify, so does our pay. Anyone who doesn’t feel that the latter is sufficient to justify the former may visit Ibbinville and defect to a competitor.”
“There is, therefore, an incentive for competitors to maintain or even accelerate the spread of disease and the frequency of murder in this place,” I said, extending Drake’s thoughts to their logical conclusion. “I recall the theory you expounded last night.”
“It’s one more reason that you ought to visit Ibbinville today,” he said, and there was mischief in his voice.
“Are there others?”
He shrugged. “You heard my coworkers’ ideas last night. They as much as accused the inhabitants of Ibbinville as being spellcasters and devil-worshippers. Seems like the first place someone in your profession would think to go, if he’s interested in what dark magic might be at play. But of course I don’t believe that’s where your interests lie.”
Drake shood his head. “You say that you divine man’s darkest secrets, that you investigate the histories of dead men. Perhaps these are the skills of a mystic. I wouldn’t know. But they are certainly the skills of a detective.”
The dregs of my coffee were devoid of whiskey. I swallowed them with a grimace. “How would you suggest I get there? To Ibbinville, I mean.”
“I’m sure Joe could put a car at your disposal,” said Drake. “But it’ll be hours before one is available. If you want to get an early start, you’ve only got two choices. First, you could go by horseback. The roads are still very poor in these parts, and we’ve got very few automobiles in Mooringsport. So we keep a stable of horses for situations such as yours. It’s almost laughable, isn’t it? That we’ve built one of the most technologically advanced outfits on the planet, yet we still hitch rides on the backs of Eocene beasts.”
I hadn’t ridden for years — perhaps a decade — and since then I’d spent countless hours in clattering, smoke-spewing, gas-powered cars and coal-fired trains. I remembered the comparably noiseless clap of hoofs on soil, and the organic, idiosyncratic intelligence of a living mount. These memories were fond.
But it was dark outside, impenetrably dark, and I was unfamilair with the bogs and tarns that separated Mooringsport from Ibbinville.
“What’s the second choice?” I asked.
“You could let him give you a ride,” said Drake, and he nodded to the man behind me.
He was tall, broad-shouldered and as black as the sky beyond the window, or the grinds in my glass. How he could have approached so silently was beyond my imagination, what with the barracks’ creaking wooden floors and whining doors. (There, I thought, was more irony: the problem of unoiled hinges in a place which was the solution was literally seeping through the earth’s crust.)
“Well, hello there,” I said.
The tall man nodded politely. “I am Julien,” he said.
“Arlen,” I replied, and I stood to shake his hand. It was enormous hand, so runneled with scars and callouses that I might have been greeting a shard of limestone.
“You are wanting to go to Ibbinville?” he asked. His voice was surprisingly high, and so thickly accented that I could barely comprehend it.
“Very much,” I said.
“I take you, but we go now.”
“I’m ready,” I said, and I turned to Drake. “Thanks for the coffee — and the conversation.”
Drake shrugged. “The caffeine ought to keep you awake for a while, anyway,” he said. “Try not to fall asleep and and slip off the dinghy, though. This is the alligators’ feeding hour.”
I froze. “The dinghy?”
Drake and Julien exchanged a collusive smile.
Ten minutes later I was folded into the bow of a leaky wooden skiff, pulling a set of oars through reeds and muck, surrounded by Stygian night, wishing I’d opted for the horse.
There was no moon in the sky, no breeze in the air. There was only the heat, which hung like a damp shroud over the surface of the water, drawing beads of sweat from my skin and swarms of insects from their hideouts in the mangroves. Every so often a mosquito landed on my neck or my brow, and I stopped rowing to swat it, which caused the boat to slow, and more mosquitos to arrive, and Julien to curse from his perch somewhere aft.
He had assured me, as we’d walked from the barracks to the pier back in Mooringsport, that the marine passage to Ibbinville was shorter than the overland route — as the crow flies, anyway — and that two men rowing would make for a quick boat ride. He had not mentioned the pests, or the heat, or the rising pool of fetid water seeping into my leather boots.
After some time I noticed two shadows blotting out the stars on the horizon. They extended upwards, like spires or tall buildings, though they were unlit and presumably unpeopled.
“Is that the rig?” I asked.
“I do not know where you are looking,” replied Julien. “But the rig is to our starboard, yes.”
“And ahead? What is that ahead?”
“It is a tower. Ancient. A ruin.”
The Caddo Indians were the only people who had been in this part of the country long enough to have made something that would now be considered “ancient,” and the highest structures they ever built were grass huts. I had never heard of a tower on Caddo Lake, but if there was one, it had been a product of modern-era industrialists like Joe.
I wanted to ask more about the tower, but at that moment something else caught my eye in the distance. It was a flickering light, moving between the tower and rig. A lantern. And in its glow, a vaguely human outline. A woman’s body, I thought.
Julien must have noticed it too, because he stopped rowing.
“An Ibbin fisher,” he whispered.
“Ibbinville’s fishers must rise early.”
“No. They fish at night. She is headed ashore.”
Our voices, hushed though they had been, must have carried on that windless night, for a moment later the stranger had extinguished her lantern.
Neither Julien nor I spoke. I listened for the slap of the paddle; I searched the horizon for the silhouette of a boat. But the fisher and her craft had been swallowed by the darkness.
I had all but given up when Julien stood abruptly, nearly capsizing our tiny boat. “Mon dieu!” he cried, and he thrust a finger out toward the oil rig.
My eyes scanned the horizon again, following the trajectory of Julien’s extended finger. They settled not upon the fisher or her boat, but upon something far more startling. Suspended on a rope affixed to the rig was the unmistakable shape of a corpse, hanging upside-down, arms dangling above the lake, swinging like a pendulum.
I have already told you that there was no wind to make it swing.
I had hoped to learn more about Ibbin fishing customs, and about the purportedly ancient tower silhouetted in the distance, and about Julien’s relationship with Drake, and about the rest of his colleagues in Mooringsport, and about why they had selected so wretched a place as Caddo Lake to build their flagship oil rig.
But death ends all questions. We had become pilgrims on a lake of chrism, wending our way toward an iron pontiff who swung a deformed thurible, in a reverent silence broken only by our oars, which gurgled vespers to submerged gods. Ibbinville would wait.
The thurible had stopped swaying by the time we reached it. When I stood up in our skiff for a closer look, I found its face inches from my own, regarding me through empty sockets. It was a deeply unnerving experience, not just because someone had razed the features from the victim’s visage, but because there was a certain stagecraft about it all. Whoever had done this had measured the rope carefully, had hung the corpse from its foot rather than from its neck, had considered the angle of our approach — had, in other words, designed a harrowing experience for whoever first came across his set.
Or her set. I caught myself scanning the lake again, searching for the fisher woman. Dark as it was, she might have been very close. Close enough to revel in our terror, to hear the breath rush from our bodies, to listen as Julien whispered old, creole prayers that his grandmother had taught him long before his mother had pushed a rosary into his hands.
“Do you have a light?” I asked.
He fumbled around for a moment, then produced a lantern from beneath his seat. He tried to light it, but his hands were shaking so violently that he could not strike his match.
“Give it here,” I said, and a few seconds later the corpse was flooded in lamplight. “Do you recognize this man?”
But Julien was slack-jawed and unresponsive, spellbound by the symbol carved into the corpse’s forehead. Blood trickled from the design, crawling over the man’s eye sockets and across his sewn-shut lips. It was not confined to his face; it had drenched his clothes and was dripping from his saturated collar to the lake below, an unintentional metronome. I imagined some primordial fish rising from the muck below to feed.
“Julien,” I said loudly, hoping to break the trance. “Julien, look carefully. Ignore the injuries. Study the man’s cheekbones, his hair, the shape of his body. His clothes. Do you know him?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes. This man’s name is Jack. Jack O’Shea. He’s an engineer. Was an engineer. A new one.”
“I don’t know. Perhaps two weeks.”
“Some time after the first murder?”
“Yes,” said Julien. “Shortly afterwards, I think.”
I nodded, an idea forming in my mind. But something else was bothering me. “What’s missing?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” asked Julien, a rising impatience in his voice.
“I mean, literally, what’s missing? The previous three victims were dismembered, yes? This one appears to have all his parts.”
Julien snorted. “All his parts? Have you not seen the man’s face? It’s been mutilated.”
I shook my head. “But so were the others. Disfigured and dismembered.”
“Perhaps the killer ran out of time,” suggested Julien. “Or perhaps he simply lost his nerve.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe’s he’s missing something, after all. His face couldn’t have produced that much blood.”
But Julien had no desire to test my theory. “We need to return to the docks,” he said. “And send word to the sheriff in Shreveport.”
I considered this for a moment. The darkness had relented ever so slightly, and a faint glow was lapping at the horizon. “Julien, what do you suppose will happen when the sun rises, and this scene is exposed to the workers at Mooringsport?”
“More of the same,” said Julien, looking toward Mooringsport. “Horror and defection. Delays on the rig. The company will lose more of its men to competitors. Perhaps the state will shut the whole thing down. Surely there is a limit to how many men can die on public land before the government intervenes.”
I nodded, but my own concern was with Ibbinville. I envisioned a mob of inbred Luddites assembled on the bank of Caddo Lake, their seething, cataractous eyes fixed upon the dangling consequence of Joe’s industrial sorcery. “You’re right,” I said. “We must return to the docks. And we must indeed send word to Shreveport. But we must bring him with us. Now. Before the sun rises on this spectacle.”
“No!” cried Julien. “Have you lost your mind? Who knows what contagions he carries, or what hexes have been laid upon him. I won’t touch him. We are too close to him already.”
“Very well,” I said, fetching a knife from my pocket. “It would have been much easier for you to cut him down, tall as you are. But I can manage it on my own. You need not touch him, but he will ride with us back to port, right here between us. Perhaps the proximity of his remains will invigorate your rowing.”
Before Julien could object, I climbed onto my seat, balanced on the tips of my toes, and slashed the rope tied to Jack O’Shea’s ankle. His corpse was slicker and heavier than I had anticipated, and in my attempt to keep it from toppling overboard I lost my footing and fell with it into the pool of lakewater that had accumulated in the belly of our skiff. When I lifted my face from the dead man’s chest it was streaked with blood and caked in scum and half-lit by inchoate dawn, like something you’d find in the corner of a warehouse full of botched Mardi Gras floats.
Julien was paddling furiously before I could even sit down.
A cluster of poorly breakfasted oilmen was already at work on Mooringsport’s docks, starting tired engines and cranking yawning winches and hoisting tools from cushioned lockers. We steered clear of them, choosing instead to beach our skiff on a mud flat north of town, beyond the range of the morning shift’s bleary, prying eyes.
When I suggested that one of us wade ashore and fetch Joe, Julien practically leapt out of the boat. When Joe showed up nearly an hour later, I wasn’t surprised to discover an entirely different man at his side pushing a wheelbarrow, carrying a large canvas bag over one shoulder.
The rest of the morning unfolded with disturbing efficiency, as Joe and his man executed a series of steps so calculated and repeatable that I wondered whether they were conducting a time-motion study on corpse collection. In no time at all we were rolling Jack O’Shea’s shrouded remains into town as though they were just another load of slag, and before the sun had reached its zenith the cadaver had been stripped, photographed, sanitized, and relocated to Doctor Denicola’s tent.
I sipped brandy in the barracks until my heartbeat slowed and my eyelids slumped and my glass stopped trembling, which was just long enough for Joe’s man to develop a photograph of Jack O’Shea’s desecrated face. I took it from him and added it to the morgue in my jacket pocket, then asked him where I could find a priest.
He looked confused for a moment, then his face flooded with misguided sympathy. He told me there was a chapel toward the southern edge of the settlement and offered to walk me there. I declined and asked for directions instead, which he began dictating slowly, painstakingly enunciating every syllable, accompanying each instruction with a hand motion, as though my run-in with a dead man had reduced me to a blithering imbecile.
“Never mind,” I said, interrupting him.
Outside, a wooden cross was clearly visible against the cerulean sky to the south, and I had only to negotiate the puddles and potholes of Mooringsport’s improvised footpaths to find my way to its doorstep.
It was among the few semi-permanent structures in town, built from wood upon a proper foundation, with a shingled roof and real glass windows. It was small, for a church — blasphemously diminutive by Roman Catholic standards — but compared with the tents, sheds, and shanties that surrounded it, the chapel might as well have been St. Peter’s Basilica.
Inside, the scent of milled cypress permeated the sanctuary, and unsettled floorboards creaked where I walked. A single row of newly constructed pews faced a plain wooden altar. And behind the altar, suspended on the wall –
I froze, but it was just a crucifix. There was nothing unusual about it. Or, rather, it wasn’t any more unusual than the thousands of other emaciated corpses suspended from ancient torture devices in Catholic parishes all over the world. But precisely because it was like other crucifixes — massive and intricate and old and vulgar — it stood out in the small, unfinished chapel. It was an interpolation, an anachronism as conspicuous as the ruined spire at the edge of Caddo Lake.
“It’s from New Orleans,” said someone standing behind me. Her voice was melodic and gentle, almost a song, and it struck me that I had neither heard nor seen a woman – save for that vaguely feminine shadow in the skiff – since arriving in Mooringsport. There was something else about it, too, something exotic: a hint of Eastern Europe or Asia Minor.
I turned to find her framed in the open doorway. Her build was so slight that I wondered, for a moment, if the chapel had been architected to her proportions. She was dressed in the habit of a nun, and her wrinkles ran so deep that they cast their own shadows. She blinked behind thick spectacles, and the edges of her desiccated lips curled into a tremulous grin.
“The crucifix, I mean,” she added.
“It is…” I paused, weighing my words. “A striking visual.”
“As are you,” said the nun. She let her eyes slide down the arc of my oiled beard to the jewels adorning my fingers. After a moment, she continued: “But that is the idea, I suppose. The crucifix arrived here, unsolicited, after the murders started. Evidently our bishop felt that our parishioners needed a more poignant reminder of their Lord’s sacrifice.”
The woman’s use of the word theirs was not lost on me, but I let it pass. Instead I asked a question that we both knew was rhetorical: “Has it worked?”
“Our bishop has never been here, yet somehow he knows the solution to our problems.” She waved dismissively toward the crucifix. “It is outlandish. Garish, ham-fisted, fear-mongering… but you can see all that. My name is Esther, by the way.”
“I’m Arlen,” I said, and I extended my hand.
She shook it gently. “If you are here for mass, Arlen, I’m afraid you must return tomorrow. This parish shares its priest with another in Shreveport, and Father Russell is there today.”
“I am not here for mass,” I said. “Though I had hoped to consult with your priest.”
“If you want to give confession –“
“No,” I interjected. “Nothing like that. Actually, I have some strange symbols that I was hoping he could look at. They are in a language with which I am not familiar, and I thought he might recognize them. Perhaps you can point me to someone else –”
“Show them to me,” she said. “My sisters and I possess few earthly assets, but we are flush with time. Many of us spend it studying, and there is much to learn in old languages.”
I hesitated. I was growing fond of Esther, but I suspected that she had spent the last half-century cloistered away in a convent, fingering prayer beads and memorizing psalms, unhardened by the bedlam of our material world. Showing her the grotesque photographs in my pocket might stop her delicate heart.
Sensing my consternation, she leaned in and lowered her voice. “Are you afraid that I will not approve of what you show me? Or that I will tell others about it? Oh, but I have lived a long time, Mr. Toups. I have seen things that your young mind could scarcely fathom, and I will take secrets to my grave that would reduce these oilmen to quivering heaps. So show me your symbols, sir. I will add them to my collection.”
Reluctantly, I withdrew the four dead men from my coat pocket. Esther snatched them away with disturbing alacrity and held them up to the light pouring through the open doorway.
“Ah!” she said, after inspecting the first image. “These are the murder victims, yes? The ones found hanging from that ridiculous machine in the lake?”
“I had heard that their bodies were mutilated,” she said calmly, “but I had not imagined anything so… legible.”
“As to that… It may help to read the symbols upside-down,” I suggested.
She glanced at me, briefly, then rotated the photographs and resumed her analysis. By the time she’d flipped through all three, her face had lost what meager color it had previously contained, and her lips had collapsed into a frown.
“What is it?” I asked. “What do they mean?”
She did not answer. Instead, she fanned out the photographs as though they were cards in a poker hand, re-ordered them, and returned them to me.
It struck me that the corpses weren’t, in fact, dissimilar from playing cards. Were the symbols carved into their foreheads the letters “J”, “Q”, and “K” in some forgotten language? Rudy Vaupel had been left with one eye, like the so-called one-eyed jack. Perhaps if I had studied the victims’ injuries more closely I would have found other similarities to face cards.
I riffled through the images, hoping to coax from them whatever secrets they had confessed to Esther, but they remained closemouthed.
“Well,” I said. “Were you able to read the symbols?”
“Numerals,” she replied, almost inaudibly.
“They are numerals, not letters. I did not recognize them, at first, for they belong to an ancient variant of Arabic that I have come across only once or twice, in manuscripts so obscure that even the Vatican has no record of them. But they are numerals, I am sure. I have placed them in order for you: two, three, four, and five. It suggests, does it not, that you have missed a victim? That some poor number one is lying out there somewhere, yet undiscovered?”
I was about to agree with her when I felt something simmer in the back of my throat.
Bile, I have always contended, is both the herald of epiphany and the harbinger of panic. I swallowed a heavy dose of it as I held up the photograph of Mooringsport’s first murder victim, Pierre Leblanc. “Does the symbol on this man’s forehead mean ‘five’?”
“And this one,” I continued, finding Jack O’Shea’s photograph. “It means ‘two,’ doesn’t it?”
She nodded again.
“The murderer is counting down, not up,” I said. “You are right, Esther: there is a number one out there somewhere. But he or she is not yet dead.”
Walk down the wrong street in the Marigny and you’ll find a scoundrel grinning at you from the other side of his makeshift table, a pea in one hand and three nested cups in the other. The game he invites you to play is called thimblerig, but he won’t call it that. He won’t name it at all, though you think you’ve heard it called the shell game. You won’t win, but you’ll play anyway. You can’t help it. You’re sure you can follow the pea. No way the con-man’s fingers are faster than your eyes.
And you’re right, after a fashion. You guess the correct cup, the first time. The second time, too. So you bet a whole dollar, the third time. But there’s too much glitter in the scoundrel’s eyes when the cups stop moving, and this time, the pea’s not under the one you choose.
It never was, of course. Not under that cup, and not under the others. You figure it out a few minutes after you walk away, but when you return to confront the man who fleeced you, all you find is a booze-stained street corner littered with broken glass and half-snuffed cigars and three crumpled paper cups.
A choice, then. I’d been headed to Ibbinville, before Jack O’Shea’s corpse had derailed my progress. There were answers there, I was sure. Oilmen with cutthroat job offers and voudouisants with impossible remedies and fisherwomen with dangerous secrets. But other, equally curious angles had revealed themselves since I’d arrived in Mooringsport: the mysterious ruins on Lake Caddo, for one, and the inexplicable medical conditions of the victims, for another. One or more of these shells contained my pea, but the order in which I investigated them was not immaterial; time was not on my side. Esther had confirmed that much.
Careful, Arlen. Beware false choices. The killer holds the pea.
Focus, Arlen. Focus on what has been removed rather than inserted; on clues-by-omission. There was something different about Jack O’Shea, wasn’t there? Something was missing — or, rather, something was there that should have been missing. Then there was the timing of his death; it had come only a few days after the last, and on a Friday rather than a Monday. Negative space and broken time.