The Killing Jar
By Andy Davidson
Note: Guys, this is my detective character. I'm not sure I mean this as a publishable piece so much as an exploration of characters, style, etc. to get a handle on him before I write his longer work. FYI. -- AD
Sam Quint was eating a ham on rye at his desk when the bell above the office door chimed and the old man in camouflage pants entered. It was half past noon on a Tuesday. The man was tall and thick through the middle, wore rimless spectacles, and possessed a mane of bushy white hair. He leaned on a wooden cane and clutched a gallon-sized glass jar with a blue metal lid close to his chest. Inside, atop a bed of rotted bark and leaves, was the biggest black beetle Quint had ever seen. The detective set his sandwich on its wax paper wrapping and rose to his feet, brushing crumbs from his white slacks as he rounded his desk. “Fascinating coleopteran,” he said, bending forward to inspect the jar.
“You know beetles, sir?” The old man’s voice was thick with a combination of accents Quint couldn’t place. His pants had Velcro flaps and he wore an olive colored vest with a half dozen zippered pockets.
“I collected butterflies when I was a boy,” Quint said. “Does that count?”
The old man narrowed his eyes.
“How may I help you, Mr.…?”
“Oberwart. My name is Ari Oberwart.”
Quint gestured at one of two green vinyl-padded chairs opposite his desk. Oberwart cast a glance over his shoulder, through the open blinds of the office windows. Outside, the parking lot of the Twin Pines shopping center was bright and empty save a lone blue pickup parked in the shade. The old man grunted and took a seat, placing his jar on the desk next to the rolodex. The beetle—as big as Quint’s fist—lurched against the glass
Quint sat down and picked up the remaining half of his sandwich. “Do you mind?”
Oberwart waved impatiently.
“Tell me then, Mr. Oberwart, what can I do for you?”
The old man sat lightly on the edge of his chair, hands clasped atop his cane. “I have seen your ad in the Sunday paper and I wish to employ your services.”
“In what capacity?”
“Two nights ago, some—”
The old man growled a word in a language Quint didn’t immediately recognize.
“—stole a number of my specimens. His identity is the mystery.”
“Large African scarabs. Family Scarabaeidae, subfamily cetoniinae, tribe goliathini, genus goliathus. Giants, Mr. Quint. I breed giants.”
Quint swallowed a lump of sandwich. He wiped his hands on his pants and drew the glass jar closer. Inside the beetle trundled a brief circle and raised its antennae. “Stolen giants,” he wondered.
“Six, to be precise. Goliath beetles bred in captivity are worth a great deal of money, Mr. Quint. This handsome fellow here is worth five hundred dollars.”
“The five-hundred-dollar handsome,” Quint said, turning the jar atop his desk planner.
“Will you help me?”
Quint leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers beneath his chin. “I gotta ask, Mr. Oberwart, why come to me? Why not go to the police? Stolen property’s not usually my thing.”
Oberwart’s eyes narrowed. He leaned forward on his cane. “I do not wish to involve the authorities.”
“Again, sir, I ask why.”
“I’m afraid, Mr. Quint, I have not been entirely forthcoming with you.”
“If you could be, please.”
“I regret to say that I am not a U.S. citizen. My visa….” He spread his hands and shrugged.
“I see,” Quint said. He looked from Oberwart to the goliathus. The beetle had tossed aside a piece of bark and was burrowing into the leaves with its toothed front legs. “My rate,” Quint said, watching the scarab, “is thirty dollars an hour plus expenses.”
“How many hours?”
“Assuming you want me only to recover any stolen property, I should think no more than ten or twelve.”
“That is satisfactory. Obviously, I do not care to press charges, only to have my beetles returned.”
“Very well, Mr. Oberwart. What say I drop by your place this afternoon around four and have a look at your setup? I’ll bring along our standard contract for you to sign. My assistant usually draws these up. She’s out to lunch just now.” Quint pulled a black notepad and pencil from a desk drawer. “Your address?”
“Morning Glory Mobile Manor. 614 West Avenue, lot C. You will see pink plastic birds from the street…”
Quint nodded. “I know the area, sir.”
“These birds, I do not understand their attraction.”
“Nor do I, sir. Until the afternoon then.”
The two men rose. Quint was about to offer his hand when Oberwart seized his jar without ceremony and started for the door.
On the sidewalk outside, the old man waved at the blue pickup under the trees. The driver, a thick-armed redneck in a sleeveless T-shirt, Confederate ball-cap, and sunglasses, cranked the pickup. He pulled alongside the curb in front of the office and leaned across the cab to open the passenger’s door for the old man, who set his jar in a pile of rags in the middle of the seat and climbed in after it.
Quint reached for the phone as the truck pulled away.
After two rings a girl’s voice answered, crackling with static: “Yeah, boss?”
Quint heard the rattle of a fast food kitchen in the background.
“Janie? I can barely hear you.”
“I’m at the Burger Dump with Alice and Mary. It’s loud. What’s up?”
“I need you to find out everything you can about beetles.”
“Like the group?”
“Like the genus goliathus. African scarabs. And not just size and mating habits either. We’re talking value. What’s a giant winged beetle worth to the average entomologist?”
“Are you on the new cell?”
“The cell phone I got you. Are you using it?”
“No you’re not. You’re on the office phone. I know because I’ve got caller ID. Just like you’ve got. On your new cell phone.”
“It’s the twenty-first century, Squint.”
“I know I know. Beetles. Check. I’ll drop by the county library on the way back. There’s this cute guy in reference.” There was a pause. “Anything else?”
“Yeah. Go to the courthouse and find out if one needs a permit to breed insects.”
“And stop by the sheriff’s station, too, will you? Talk to Grover. He owes me one for that business with the carnival people last fall. Have him run a name through the usual databases. Last name O-b-e-r-w-a-r-t. First name A-r-i. Address 614 West Avenue. Pull up whatever public records you can find.”
“And why are we running a background check on a new client?”
“Call it unusual circumstances.”
“You’re the boss.”
“If I’m not here I’ll be at the Beacon. Say hey to the gals.”
“Will do. And take the phone.”
Quint dropped the receiver in the cradle. He opened his desk drawer and stood staring down at the little silver phone nestled in the paper clip tray like some weird, futuristic egg incubating. He closed the drawer. He crumpled the remains of his sandwich and tossed the ball at the wire wastebasket by the filing cabinet.
It glanced off the rim and rolled beneath the legs of the hat stand.
Quint didn’t bother to pick it up. He grabbed his hat and hit the door.
From a back corner booth at the Beacon, he had a clear view of his office six storefronts down between the Wondermat and the Blood, Sweat, and Shears beauty salon. The diner—a greasy spoon run by a full-blooded Nez Perce Indian named Chapowits—was empty save one of the long-haired kids that worked at the Filmporium next door; the kid, whose name was Fitch, spilled over a stool at the counter eating a cheeseburger. The detective was on his third cup of black coffee, the funnies of the Morris County Monitor open and unread before him, when Janie’s yellow square back zipped into its regular space outside.
“I’ve been trying to call you,” she said, thumping into the seat opposite Quint’s. She slipped a green suede satchel from her shoulder, tossed her keys on the table, and immediately set to thumbing numbers on her cell phone. Her short nails were colored the same bright shade of red as her hair.
Quint folded the paper and set it aside. “Do you know what I’ve been thinking about ever since our new client walked in? I’d forgotten—”
“It picks up right away, see. Here.” She thrust the cell phone at him. Her cheeks were flushed from the afternoon heat. “Listen.”
Quint took the phone. He heard: “You have reached the office of S. Quint Investigations.”
“This is you,” he said.
Janie reached for and unrolled Quint’s silverware.
“If you are calling regarding a pending investigation, please press one. If you are calling to hire a professional investigator, please press two. All other inquiries please press three.”
Janie snagged Quint’s coffee. “Press three.”
“We apologize for being unable to take your call at this time. After the tone…”
Quint held it away. “What do I do now?”
Janie poured a fall of sugar into the coffee and banged the spoon around. “It’s voicemail. It’s recording.”
“I don’t want it to be recording.”
“So hang up.”
“How do I do that?”
“Press the button or close the phone.”
Quint snapped the phone shut and dropped it on Janie’s placemat.
“I wanted you to hear,” she said. “That’s what I hear every time I try to call you on your phone. Because it’s off. If you’re not going to use the thing—”
“It seems complicated,” he said. “Simple is better.”
Janie shoved the phone into her satchel. “So fire me. My practical science prof at Morris County Community College is just dying to give me a position in his office.”
Quint leaned forward, elbows on the table. “What you got?”
She grinned. “I got a date with the new guy in reference.”
“A new guy? Lots of turnover in reference these days.”
“Most men can’t handle reality.” She sipped her coffee. “He’s really cute.”
Quint snapped his fingers.
She drew a brown manila folder from her satchel and plopped it down. “Everything you ever wanted to know about big dirty bugs. Gross.” She pulled another folder and slid it across the table. “Everything there is to know about your Mr. O-b-e-r-w-a-r-t., address 614 West Avenue, lot C.”
The folder was empty.
“Nothing in criminal or civil records. No driver’s license, no tax information. Rental property’s registered under the Morning Glory landlord, Tim Poole. Your new client might as well be a ghost.”
Quint closed the folder.
“What do you think?” Janie said.
Quint glanced at his watch. “I’m meeting him in two hours. I’ll use the time between now and then to bone up on beetles. Meantime, you draw up a standard contract and keep digging. Try the landlord, Poole.” He paused, considering. “Can you access visa records?”
“Like a credit card? Sure.”
“No, travel visas. He’s not from around here. He his visa was expired. He spoke in a language, Russian maybe….”
“We’d need his signature for a third-party request, have to mail it off.” Janie bit a nail with no thought for the polish. “You know, people without paper trails generally have things to hide. What if this guy’s, like, a deranged Nazi?”
“We’ll burn that bridge later. Right now he’s a paying client. Prep the forms for me, including the third-party request. Bring them back here when they’re done, will you?”
“You need a ride?”
“I’ll take a Green Cab.”
She gathered her things and slid out of the booth. She’d gone a dozen steps when she turned on the heels of her red Converse sneakers. They squeaked on the linoleum. “Hey, boss.”
Quint looked up from a diagram of goliathus orientalis.
“Earlier, what were you thinking about?”
“When I came in, you said you were thinking about something you hadn’t thought of in years. The old man made you remember. What was it?”
“Butterflies,” Quint said. “I used to collect butterflies when I was a kid.”
Janie tucked a lock of red hair behind her ear. “Be careful, Squint.”
He flashed a smile.
She tossed a brief salute and left.
At 3:57 p.m. the Green Cab, a 1983 Caprice the color of fresh limes, dropped Quint at the entrance to Morning Glory Mobile Manor. An iron rainbow arched over the mouth of the trailer park’s gray gravel drive. A flock of pink plastic flamingoes grazed in the grass on either side. The rocks in the drive were salted with broken sea shells.
Lot C was at the far end of the row, more a converted camper than a mobile home. The trailer itself was short and round and resembled nothing so much as a freakish mushroom sprung from contaminated soil. The overgrown yard was huge compared to others in the park. It was enclosed by a rusted chain link fence.
Quint entered through the gate and followed a barely visible flagstone path. He was about to ascend a set of wooden steps and knock on the door when Oberwart lurched around the end of the trailer, propped by his cane. “Detektiv!” the old man called, waving Quint over. “Here. Come this way. I will show you the damage to my laboratory.”
Quint surveyed the rest of Morning Glory. Not a soul was stirring in the late afternoon. Only a mangy orange dog lay panting in the shade beneath the neighbors’ mobile home, staring out from its cool dry bed with rheumy eyes.
They rounded the end of the trailer and there, in the middle of the backyard, creeping with potato vine and saw briars, was the old man’s laboratory: a small, makeshift structure like a poor man’s greenhouse—corrugated fiberglass walls, a rusted tin roof.
Oberwart fumbled a set of keys from a vest pocket. “I changed the lock after the break in.” He inserted his key into a silver padlock screwed into the door’s aluminum frame, just above a section of scored metal where the previous lock had been.
“Looks like they forced it with a crowbar,” Quint said, running his thumb over the metal. “Have you ever had trouble like this before?”
“Never.” Oberwart paused, hand on the latch. “Please, do not touch anything.”
They went in.
“Welcome to my bughouse,” the old man said.
The air inside was moist and smelled of earth and decaying plant matter. Along both walls were long wooden tables lined with large glass terrariums, some fitted with fluorescent lights. In the greenish-blue gloom Quint could see shiny black beetles the size of baseballs working in six-inch layers of leaves and wood, the intricate patterns on their backs pearlescent beneath the artificial lights. Under the tables were plastic buckets of rotting leaves and bark, bags of peat, old metal watering cans, coconut husks and cobwebs.
Oberwart crossed to a work table at the back of the shed.
“The tanks without lights,” Quint asked, “are those for larvae?”
“Good, Mr. Quint. Good. The larvae live inside the substrate so they have no need for light. This particular substrate is a special cocktail of my own invention: equal parts rotting mulch and leaves—there is oak, elm, some beech wood—and a dash of coconut fiber for texture, eh?”
“What was taken, exactly?”
“You see the two empty spaces.” Oberwart pointed at the table to his left. “Here were two fifty-gallon terrariums populated with breeders: two females, one male per tank.”
Quint drew a penlight from his coat pocket. Where the tanks had sat were a few withered leaves and a dead brown spider. He squatted, peered under the table. At the floor.
“Footprints in the dirt here.”
“These I did not disturb.”
“Maybe not these, but any leading in have certainly been trampled. How heavy were these tanks?”
“I had not moved them since I filled them. Even if I wanted to I could not pick them up.”
“Three pairs of sneakers, one pair of something heavier. Work boots maybe. Too messy to tell.” Quint stood up.
“The grass behind the shed was trampled, too,” Oberwart said.
Outside, Quint walked along the backyard fence row until he found it: a trampled section of grass where the intruders had vaulted the chest-high fence. Behind the fence was a thick stand of shrubs and mimosa trees. Quint removed his coat and draped it over the chain link. He tucked his tie into his shirt and climbed over. On the other side of the trees was a narrow dirt lane, an alley that opened onto residential streets at either end. To the left, a few blocks away, Quint could see the old paper mill, empty and silent. Across from where he stood were more backyards enclosed in chain link, their clotheslines deathly still in the hot August evening. The yard directly in front of him had a pink plastic swimming pool with a skein of dead bugs floating on the water. Plenty of windows, he thought, looking along the row of houses.
In the middle of the lane, darkening the grass that grew there, not far from Quint’s feet and between a faint set of tire tracks in the dirt, was what appeared to be a recent oil stain.
Quint hunkered down. He scanned the weeds on Oberwart’s side of the lane, the undergrowth beneath the trees. He spied two white, crumpled objects at the base of a mimosa. He picked one up. It was a crushed pack of Camels, its butts scattered among fallen pink blossoms in the grass. Sixteen butts total. Quint checked the line of sight from the spot where the cigarettes were heaviest: a direct view of Ari Oberwart’s backyard.
“Mr. Oberwart,” he announced once back over the fence, “I have a theory.”
The old man had followed Quint’s wake of trodden grass. He leaned expectantly on his cane.
“There’s evidence on the other side of those trees to suggest whoever infiltrated your shed was watching you for some time before they moved.” Quint slipped back into his coat. “The night before you discovered your bugs missing, what time did you go to bed?”
“Every night I go to bed at ten p.m.”
“I’d guess not long after your lights went out you were hit. Four men to move the tanks, possibly another waiting in the car. I’d also bet at least two of the thieves are residents of this very neighborhood.”
“How can you bet this?”
“Because those backyards on the other side of the fence have nightlights, and men committing felonies in residential neighborhoods don’t hang out in plain sight long enough to smoke two packs of Camels and lose a quart of oil from their engines. Unless, of course, one of two things is true: a) they’re complete idiots, or b) they belong here. Given the fact they aren’t stealing television sets and car radios, I’d put my eggs in basket b. Does anyone in the neighborhood know about your bugs?”
“I keep to myself.”
“What about that fellow you were with at the office today? Drove the blue Ford.”
“Ezekiel? No, no, he lives in a camp out by the river. He is harmless. I call him when I need transportation. He has recently found Jesus, as they say.”
“I see. I think I’d like to have a walk around the neighborhood, if you don’t mind.”
“You are the detektiv.”
“Which reminds me.” Quint reached into his jacket and removed the standard contract Janie had drawn up for Oberwart. She had clipped a ballpoint pen to the top right corner. “If you could sign here, sir.”
The old man pushed his spectacles up his nose, planted the contract on Quint’s right shoulder blade, and scrawled his signature.
“And on this one,” Quint said, pulling a second sheet from his pocket. “It’s simply a waiver that states we at S. Quint Investigations are not liable for the condition of any stolen property if said property should be returned, etc.”
“Oberwart,” the detective said, pocketing pen and papers. “Is that German?”
“But your accent, it’s….”
“My father came from Russia. Oberwart was my mother’s name. I took it when I came to the United States.”
“I see,” Quint said. “Mr. Oberwart, may I use your phone?”
Quint arranged for a Green Cab to pick him up in front of Morning Glory in approximately half an hour. It was 4:31 p.m. when he set out around the block to the house with the pink swimming pool.
The front yard was freshly cut. Red and blue pansies grew in narrow beds along the walk. After three knocks on the outer storm door, a middle-aged woman in the blue uniform of a security guard appeared. Her hair was rolled and she had the weary air of a woman whose days and nights exchanged places on a regular basis. Quint knew the look well. He had seen the same slump to his father’s shoulders, the same dark circles under the eyes, after long stretches of graveyard shifts at the mill. It was a posture, he imagined, common to this neighborhood.
The woman cracked her storm door.
Quint tipped his hat and introduced himself, offering his ID and business card through the gap in the door. “I’m looking into a robbery that happened just behind your house at the residence of a Mr. Ari Oberwart. Do you know him?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t.” The woman examined his card. “I was just getting ready for work—”
“Five minutes, ma’am. Please.”
She glanced at her watch. She opened the storm door and stepped out onto the concrete porch in her stocking feet. Quint took two steps backward, off the porch and onto the walk that led up from the street.
“I thought men like you only worked in big cities,” she said, passing his ID and business card back.
Quint tucked them into his shirt pocket. “Actually, ma’am, I grew up not four blocks from here. My father was Hiram Quint. He worked at the plywood plant for thirty years.”
“I worked a gate three years over there till they shut it down. Now…” She flicked her silver badge with her thumb. “Mall security.”
“Not Twin Pines?”
“East River. You said something was stolen?”
“I was hoping you might recall whether you saw a vehicle parked in the lane out back after ten p.m. two nights ago.”
She crossed her arms. “Two nights ago. You mean Sunday night?”
She shook her head. “I had to work a concert over at Millbranch Sunday night. But my son would have been here.”
“Is he here now?”
“No, he and a friend left to go night-fishing a little while ago. I’ve got his cell number….”
She disappeared inside and returned with the number written on a paper napkin. Quint thanked her and set out walking for the Conoco at the end of the block. He dropped a dime in a payphone and called the number. The woman’s son picked up on the third ring. There was a low hum in the background—tires on pavement, Quint figured—and a steady warble of static. The boy who answered said his name was Eddie. He had a faint country twang. Quint went through the same spiel he’d gone through with the mother, and the boy said yes, he had seen a car parked out back Sunday night. Quint asked the make and model. He got his answer just before the other end of the conversation dissolved into a steady hiss and died.
He hung up.
A white ’76 Firebird.
He checked his watch. He still had fifteen minutes.
He threw his coat over his shoulder and set out down the nearest street, eying cars parked in driveways and along curbs. Mostly they were pick-ups and Japanese imports, bald tires and busted odometers.
He’d gone a block when he came to Sycamore Way.
At the end of the street, across pot-holed Summer Avenue, the empty paper mill brooded like a forgotten giant.
He made his way up the street.
Tufts of milkweed split the sidewalk.
The seams in the avenue were black and sticky in the summer heat.
He stopped at the turnout of 124 Sycamore Way.
The house in which he’d been raised had burned six years ago, shortly before his father’s stroke. Six rooms, yellow linoleum in the kitchen, pink flowers in a blue vase on the Formica-topped table. The air had smelled of boiled cabbage and pipe smoke.
The rubble had been cleared. The pin oak still stood in the corner of the lot, its
scorched lower branches trimmed away not long after the fire.
Quint glanced at his watch. It was five o’clock.
He cut through the lot onto the neighboring street, where he found the Green Cab waiting.
The grass at 124 was tall. Dandelions and purple violets grew among the weeds.
A butterfly, its wings golden orange and spotted brown, moved uncertainly among the flowers.
When he got back to the office, Janie had left for the day. Quint hung his hat and coat on the rack and tugged loose his tie. He called Janie on the landline and arranged for her to meet him at ten that evening to make a thorough search for the Firebird in Oberwart’s neighborhood under cover of darkness. She grumbled something about not having a life and said she’d be there. “Wear black and bring a thermos of crushed ice,” he told her before hanging up.
In back of the office, through a door marked “PRIVATE,” Quint collapsed on a ratty green sofa. He took a nap and woke as the shadows in the alley were slanting through the blinds. He grabbed a quick shower and dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans. In the office, he fetched his leather surveillance satchel out of the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and made a quick inspection of all the equipment. Then he went down to the Beacon for a steak.
Chapowits—build of a boxer stuffed in an apron and a paper hat—stood at the grill shoveling an omelet. There were two other customers, an old man with hands that shook and a bleached blonde at the counter, a full ashtray and two cups of coffee between them.
“How about a T-bone, Chappy,” Quint said, taking his usual booth.
The big Indian’s head might have turned in his direction, Quint couldn’t tell, but he knew the order had been heard. Fifteen minutes later, the plate was on the table: steak, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy.
Chapowits wiped his hands on a dish towel, slung the towel over his shoulder, and said to Quint, “A young brave walked into a bar in Tempe, Arizona, followed by his three-legged dog. The white bartender said, ‘Hey, Indian, why does your dog only have three legs?’ The brave said, ‘This dog, he is very special. Two nights ago my house burned to the ground. This dog ran into my burning house, retrieved my infant daughter, and laid her at my feet. Then he ran back into the house, fetched my credit cards, car keys, and insurance papers and laid these at my feet, as well.’ ‘Incredible,’ said the white bartender. ‘And did your dog lose his leg in the fire?’ ‘No,’ said the brave. ‘A dog like this, you do not eat all at once.’”
Quint cut a hunk of steak and gave the Indian a thumbs-up.
“You on the clock tonight?” Chapowits asked.
Quint swallowed. “Will be soon.”
“Is it dangerous?”
Quint only grinned.
The Indian wandered over to the counter and emptied the blonde’s ashtray. She lit a fresh cigarette and gave him a brief nod, a wrist-flick of gratitude. “I worry about you, Sam,” he said when he returned. He sat opposite Quint. “Sleeping in back of your office. Eating this food, night after night. You need a woman to cook you vegetables grown with her own two hands. My Loretta, rest her soul, grew succotash in her garden. She made a casserole that was out of this world.”
“Why don’t you just change the menu, Chappy.”
Chapowits stabbed a thick, grease-scarred finger in the middle of the table. “Men weren’t made to be alone, Sam Quint.”
“You knew my father, Chaps. He lived alone twenty years after mom left.”
“Yes, and he died alone. Too proud to let even his own son care for him.”
Quint sawed his steak. “Yeah, well, I’m not proud.”
“But you’re every bit as stubborn.”
Outside, Janie’s Volkswagen drew along the curb and honked.
Quint dropped his knife and fork and slid out of the booth, snagging his surveillance satchel. He gave Chapowits a warm clap on the shoulder. “Thanks for the grub, old pal.”
The Indian watched him go. “It was nothing,” he said and returned to his grill.
“It’s gonna be a long night,” Janie said when she saw the satchel.
Quint sniffed the air and buckled his seatbelt. “Is that gasoline?”
“A hose somewhere needs replacing. Which way I am going?”
“West Avenue. Are you wearing a cocktail dress?”
“It’s black, okay? The jumpsuit smelled like crotch.” She downshifted on a turn, gears grinding.
“You bring the thermos?”
“My bag, backseat.”
Quint crunched ice one piece at a time for three complete circuits of Oberwart’s neighborhood. The houses were mostly dark. Nightlights in yards cast fluorescent pools across the lawns and chain link fences spun web work shadows on the sidewalks. Over the steady chug of the Volkswagen’s engine, Quint could hear the zap of bug lights on porches, the distant barking of penned up dogs. They had cruised for half an hour when Janie spotted a white Pontiac Firebird parked along a curb two streets over from Morning Glory Mobile Manor. “That wasn’t here before, was it,” she said, hanging a U-turn.
The house the Firebird was parked in front of looked like every other house on the block: old, cramped, shingled with white asbestos. The yard was mostly hardpan; what little grass grew was tangled in the gnarled roots of a dead pine tree. A dozen moths battered themselves against the bare bulb of a porch light.
Janie parked several cars back and cut the engine. They sat waiting in the dark.
“So when’s the date with the guy from reference?” Quint asked.
“Dinner and a movie?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Like I’d tell you.”
“You’ll just make fun of it. You’ve become a total movie snob since I bought you that DVD player.”
“Oh yeah? You spend your Friday nights with those geeks at the Filmporium, don’t you?”
“Just a hint.”
Quint crunched a piece of ice. “What’s his name?”
“Why, so you can—”
The front door of the house opened and four men stepped onto the porch.
Janie fell silent. Quint capped the thermos.
Three of the four were young, no more than eighteen. They wore jeans and dark T-shirts, sneakers. One wore glasses. They thrust their hands in their pockets and cast wary glances into the shadows beyond the porch. The fourth—a head taller than the others and a few years older—was shirtless, wearing only a pair of black cargo pants and heavy combat boots. His head was shaved. He said something to the kid with the glasses then, a second later, slapped him hard across the face. The kid’s glasses flew into the yard. The others recoiled. Skinhead pointed at the Firebird. Slowly, they filed down the broken concrete walk and into the car.
“Let’s go,” Quint said when the Pontiac had pulled away from the curb.
They turned east onto 70. Once Quint had the plate number, Janie kept a quarter-mile between them. They passed darkened storefronts and rolled through four-way stops downtown. In five minutes the orange sodium lights of Morris Creek were behind them and they were headed south on a two-lane blacktop. About a mile past the city limits, just over the River Bridge, the Firebird whirled right onto a county road.
They hit gravel and were swallowed by the night, the woods, the square back’s headlights spilling into the dark before them, the Firebird’s dusty red wake far ahead. Rocks popped and skittered beneath the Volkswagen’s chassis. In the hot rush of the wind Quint could smell the river, damp and earthy, just beyond the trees.
“They’re turning again,” Janie said.
The Firebird slowed and made a right, toward the river. It disappeared in the woods.
“Keep going,” Quint said.
They passed where the car had turned—Quint saw lights shining dimly in the trees—and rounded a sharp bend.
“There,” Quint said, pointing at a narrow dirt turnout just visible through the undergrowth.
They sat in the dark, hot motor ticking, a chorus of night sounds rising from the woods. Quint rummaged in his satchel and took out a pair of Rigel night-vision goggles and fastened them to his head. “Where’s the switch on these?”
Janie reached over and flicked it.
The world flared into green relief.
Quint gave a thumbs up she couldn’t see and climbed out the open passenger’s window. “Be back,” he said and set out up the road. He moved as stealthily as the gravel would allow, keeping his stride wide and long until he cut through the trees, ducking limbs and dodging fat green spiders in their webs. Soon he was hunkered down behind a thick pine with an unobstructed view of a hardpan cul de sac. The Firebird was parked in the open, its trunk up. At the far edge of the clearing a camper sat on concrete blocks, party lights in the shape of chile peppers strung from the faded canvas awning to the trees. Here a blue Ford pickup was parked, a blue Ford pickup Quint recognized from that morning. Standing in front of the Pontiac, talking low to Skinhead and Glasses, was Ezekiel, the thick-armed redneck who’d recently found Jesus. They all leaned against the fender, Skinhead and Glasses sharing a cigarette. The headlights threw their shadows into the trees. The other two kids from the Pontiac were shuffling toward where the land fell steeply away to the river. Between them they carried, shining in the Firebird’s beams, one of Ari Oberwart’s missing terrariums. When the boys reached the tree line at the edge of the river, they counted to three and swung the terrarium into space.
Quint heard the distant cracking of tree limbs followed by the shattering of glass.
Skinhead pitched his butt into the woods and pushed angrily away from the car. “Goddamn!” he roared. “River ain’t wide enough you titwits can’t hit it?”
He and Glasses went and stood between the others, peering over the edge. Ezekiel hung back at the car, thumbs hooked in his belt loops.
“We got close,” the kid on the right said.
“What? What did you say?”
“Todd,” Glasses said, placing a hand on Skinhead’s elbow.
They pulled the second terrarium from the trunk and gave it a little more lift. This time, there was no shattering of glass, only the cold hard smack of the tank hitting water.
Glasses said something Quint couldn’t hear as they made their way back to the car.
Skinhead opened the driver’s door and thrust a finger across the roof. “If you don’t shut up about those bugs, Lewis, I swear to Christ, I’ll put my foot about a mile up your ass. Enough!”
“You assholes get the hell out of here,” Ezekiel said, bathed white in the eerie glow of the Firebird’s headlights. He stood with his arms crossed and his head thrust back. “Before I call down some righteous thunder.”
Quint shrank back against the pine as the Pontiac tore out of the cul de sac and onto the gravel road. A moment later he heard the rusty squall of a pickup door, the rumble of its engine. The Ford rolled slowly out of the clearing and turned in the direction of town. After its taillights had diminished through the trees, Quint made a slow count to ten then crossed to the riverbank.
The drop was perhaps fifteen feet, not quite sheer. Stunted cedars and pines littered the embankment wall, their roots twisted in the mud. Far up river, Quint spotted what might have been the second terrarium, a dark rectangle drifting like some strange bassinet in the current. Directly below were the remains of the first terrarium. It had taken out a few branches on the way down to break against a piece of driftwood. Quint fumbled with the night-vision goggles until he was able to magnify the scene. The terrarium’s insides spilled out in a heap. Three of the Goliath beetles had survived the fall and were trundling off into the underbrush like shell-shocked soldiers, leaving tiny footprints in the sand. Quint focused on the mound of rotted bark and leaves that had lined the terrarium.
Something other than dead beetles glinted in the substrate.
He was about to start picking his way down the slope when he heard, from the turnout behind, the chug of an engine, the crack of tires on gravel. Without thinking he turned, night-vision goggles on full zoom, and the world went white like a nuclear blast. He tore the goggles from his head even as the nerve endings behind his eyes detonated. He reeled. The soft earth at the edge of the embankment gave way. He fell.
He had no sensation of falling, only of being pummeled. Branches whipped his face. Roots snagged his feet. His right shoulder cracked against a tree trunk. He came up hard against the same log that had broken the terrarium, just to the right of the substrate and glass. He lay breathless on his back, right arm thrown across the driftwood, the other planted elbow-first in the mud. The furious rush of the river filled his head Everything was black. He tried to push himself out of the mire. Something screamed in his right shoulder. He cried out, fell back.
He closed his eyes, opened them.
At the top of the bank, someone was yelling.
An image took shape far above him, a blurry figure silhouetted against a swath of light that cut through the trees and extended out into space like a bridge.
“Call out to me, boss!”
He tried to, but he didn’t have the breath. Her name came out an empty gasp, then a croak. “Janie,” he managed, barely a whisper. Then, louder: “Janie!”
“Squint? Where are you?”
He felt something tickle the back of his hand. He tried to pull away, draw his arm from across the log, but it wouldn’t move. Whatever it was tickled a moment longer then ceased.
“Goggles,” he said, no idea if she could hear him. “Find the goggles.” Something wet was running down his chin. He ran his tongue over his lip and tasted blood.
He blacked out.
Her voice pulled him back. It was trembling, desperate, near: “Wake up, boss, please, please wake up….”
He opened his eyes. Two green orbs swam in the dark before him. “Good girl,” he mumbled.
She was close, right beside him. On her knees in the mud. “Something’s wrong with your shoulder,” he heard her say. “I think, I think it’s broken…
“…there’s something in the sand here, it looks like blood…
“…a path up the bank, just over there, hang on, boss, please….”
He’s aware of movement, her arms beneath his, the whisper of branches against his left cheek like fingers—feelers—in the dark. This lasts a while. Some of it he’s conscious for, some of it he’s not. When he comes back for the third or fourth time there’s the smell of gasoline, and when he opens his eyes he sees the orange lights of town flashing behind Janie, Janie who’s hunched over the wheel driving furiously, mouthing words he cannot hear.
He tries a smile, slow and bloody.
She doesn’t see.
When he woke he found himself in a strange bed in a dark room, covered with an afghan his mother had made for him as a boy. It was a crookedly hooked, amateur job, her one great project: blues and reds and yellows and purples, colors lovely but matching nothing. He tried to sit up and felt a sudden burst of pain in his shoulder. His right arm was in a sling. He touched his forehead, felt a bandage there. Another on his right side, just above his hip, this one larger, wider. The air in the room was tinged with the scent of antiseptic. A series of paced electronic beeps emanated from somewhere near. He let his eyes adjust and looked around: he was in the hospital.
Janie slept curled beneath a Morris County Medical blanket in the recliner under the TV, her legs tucked beneath her, her chin resting on her collar bone. Her black Converse sneakers were set neatly at the foot of her chair. Quint saw she had covered the sneakers’ white logos and laces with black electrical tape.
“Wear black,” he’d told her on the phone that evening.
He drifted back asleep.
Late the next morning he was discharged stiff and sore and covered in bruises. Janie brought the square back around as they wheeled him out to the curb. He left with his arm in a sling and thirty stitches suturing a gash in his forehead and a puncture in his side from a sliver of terrarium glass. It turned out his shoulder wasn’t broken, but it had been dislocated in the fall. Back at the office, Janie brewed coffee before she left for home to shower. He poured one cup, took a sip, and tossed the rest down the sink. After a shave, he put on a white button-up and slacks and walked down to the Beacon for breakfast. Chapowits gave him a long, curious look but said nothing. Quint ordered two eggs and three strips of bacon. When he got back to the office, it was just after one. Janie was already back, working the desk in a T-shirt and jeans. He sat down in one of the green vinyl chairs. “You should take the rest of the day off,” he said.
“Mrs. Hallenbeck called about her daughter’s cat.”
“That’s twice this summer.” Quint fiddled with the bandage on his forehead. “Tell her to call the pound.”
“Ned Land out at the sawmill wants to know about his wife.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“He sounded pretty upset. Said you’ve had three weeks.”
“I’ve had a lot more than that.” Quint touched one of the larger bruises on his
cheek. “Anything else?”
“I over-nighted the request for Oberwart’s visa to the State Department. Of course, we’re talking weeks, minimum, for a response.”
“Did you call the landlord at Morning Glory?”
“Said the old man rented the trailer six months ago, pays his rent and utilities in
cash. He was reluctant to say more, but I gathered there wasn’t much more to say. Bottom line, boss: we may never know any more about Ari Oberwart than we do right now.”
“You run the Firebird’s plates yet?”
“Top of my to-do list.”
Quint took a deep breath, let it out. “What day is it?”
“Wednesday. I’ve got chem-class at six tonight.”
“You really are a good girl, you know,” Quint said.
Janie put her feet up on his desk. “That mean I get a raise?”
“A raise?” He gestured grandly at the office. “Someday, kid, this will all be yours.”
Quint spent the rest of the afternoon on the sofa watching French crime movies and dozing in a fog of pain medication. At half past six he got up and showered. He wiped steam from the mirror and inspected himself. He looked a shambles. Bruises on both cheekbones, a nasty scrape on the tip of his chin. Dark circles beneath his eyes. Of course, those had been there before. What was it Chapowits said? “I worry about you…sleeping in your office….” Quint popped a codeine tablet. “You assume I sleep,” he said to the mirror.
He put on a T-shirt and jeans and called a taxi. “Yeah, it’s me again,” he told the dispatcher.
The Green Cab dropped him at Morning Glory, lot C.
Oberwart answered the door in khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. His legs were thin and pale, his knees knobby. “Detektiv? Mein gott, what has happened to you?”
“I have news regarding your case, sir. May I come in?”
“Certainly. I was just in the middle of a case myself. Perhaps you will join me?”
Oberwart ushered Quint into a cramped living room and gestured at a wooden rocking chair. “You sit. Please. I will get the beer.”
Quint took in the space, small and gloomy, the walls decorated with various species of insects mounted in shadow boxes. A goldfish bowl atop a narrow table, a bookcase brimming with tomes on entomology, science, history. An old Victrola and a box of records on the floor beside it. A short, wicked sword mounted above the bookcase.
Oberwart returned from the kitchen—little more than an alcove around the corner from the living room—with two pints of frothy bitter.
“That sword,” Quint said, taking his glass. “I’ve seen them in books. Russian, isn’t it?”
“You have a good eye, Mr. Quint. Yes. It belonged to my father. He was an Ussuri Cossack.” Oberwart took a seat in a wing-backed chair opposite Quint. “Do you know your history, detektiv?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“In the Revolution, the Ussuri Cossacks fought against the Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, they fought on the losing side. My father was one of thousands who fled the Soviet Union in the wake of the Red Army’s victory. He gained citizenship in Poland, where he met my mother. When the Germans invaded he was recruited, as were many Cossacks, to serve in the ranks of the Reich. He accepted, but not because in his heart the Revolution still lived. His wife was Jewish. They would have killed her if he had not agreed to be their spy.”
Quint drank his beer.
“Toward the end of the war, Cossack leaders persuaded Hitler to allow them to relocate to the Italian Alps, where they established refugee camps, churches, schools. It was there that I was born in the winter of 1944. Not a bad place to be born, no?”
“Well, when the Allies advanced, the Italians ordered us out, and so we retreated into Austria. It was along the banks of the River Drave, near Lienz, that the British caught up with us. They held the Cossacks but assured us we would not be handed over to the Soviets. The Red Army was advancing only a few miles to the east, but my father and my mother, like thousands of others, believed they were under the protection of the British.
“Of course, that changed when word came they were forcing women and children onto trains at bayonet point. This was exactly the fate my father had sought to avoid for my mother. So he took her and his newborn child and fled for the second time in his life. In the end, the Bolsheviks received over thirty thousand men, women, and children from the British government, many of whom died at the end of a rope or a gun barrel.”
“Where did you go?”
“Into the forests and mountains. We were taken in by a wealthy German family named Hubert. We disguised ourselves as Ukrainians. I grew up in Austria and, after the death of my parents in a fire, came to the United States in 1969 on a student visa. I never went back to Europe.” Oberwart chuckled, gestured at the walls. “And now here I am: an old man living all alone without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. All I have are my giants.”
“What is it you love about them?” Quint asked.
Oberwart smiled. “From dung they are reborn. You have to admire that, yes? Beetles are beautiful because they possess a kind of immortality we humans can only dream of. Immortality independent of belief, of faith. They are immortal by design, Mr. Quint. They care nothing for war, revolution, the eternal struggle. There is only birth and rebirth, never death.”
“You sound like a passionate man, sir.”
The old man shrugged. “If there is a corner of the universe free of melancholy, it’s the corner I cultivate in my little shed.”
Quint finished off his beer.
“Tell me, detektiv, where are my beetles?”
“The man who stole your beetles is your driver.”
“Ezekiel? But surely he could not—”
“I saw him, sir.”
Oberwart thrust his chin out and narrowed his eyes. “What did you see?”
“Your driver and four other men disposing of the evidence.”
“The beetles? They destroyed them?”
“The tanks, too. Threw them in the river. Which, I have to say, sir, doesn’t make
much sense. Why go to the trouble to steal something worth a lot of money if you’re only going to trash it.”
“Then Jesus was not all he found,” Oberwart muttered.
Oberwart shook his head. “These others, who were they?”
“Four accomplices whose identities are, at the moment, unknown. I should have their names by tomorrow. But I have to tell you, sir, if you’re unwilling to take any legal action against them, I’m afraid you’ll have only paid me to tell you your property’s lost.”
“Yes. Yes, I see. This is most unfortunate.”
“Mr. Oberwart, this may seem like an odd question, but did those tanks contain anything other than beetles and larvae?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“It just seems that’s the only reason they’d get rid of the bugs—if there were something in the tanks worth a lot more than five or six African scarabs.”
“Five or six African scarabs would fetch a substantial sum, Mr. Quint.”
“Yes, sir. I understand. But the question remains.”
“No,” Oberwart said. “There is nothing in my tanks but that which I care most deeply for, my beetles.”
He’s lying, Quint thought.
“Very well, sir,” he said. “Just come by the office tomorrow and we’ll settle the bill. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to recover your property.” He offered the old man his hand.
This time, Oberwart took it, a pained, distracted look on his face.
“Thank you for the beer,” Quint said.
“Yes,” Oberwart said. “Of course.”
The sun was on its way out by the time Quint left Oberwart’s. The sky had filled with purple clouds and lightning flickered in the west. He took a cab straight to Ezekiel’s camp by the river. On the way he began to feel the beer working with the codeine in his system. He told the driver to wait and pounded on the trailer door. When the thick-armed redneck filled the frame, he was wearing nothing but a pair of jeans and flip-flops. He stepped outside under the shade of the canvas awning, massive chest tattooed with Christ’s bleeding head, the eyes upturned in holy agony.
“Someone catch you peepin’ through windows?” Ezekiel said.
“You know me then.”
“I got nothin’ to say to you.”
“Mr. Oberwart tells me you’re a born again Christian, Zeke. Ever hear the one about the truth?”
“You ever hear the one about the cat?”
“Song of Solomon?”
“Watch it, dick.”
“Listen, I don’t know why you took the old man’s bugs, Zeke, but one thing’s for sure: you’re no weekend entomologist. Maybe that guy Lewis last night seemed more the type, but that guy Todd wasn’t interested in scarabs, was he.”
Ezekiel’s eyes darted toward the river, settled back on Quint. He smiled. “You been at the devil’s brew, dick?”
“That’s right. What was in those tanks besides beetles, Zeke? Something shiny?”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
“Sure you do. Man finds an oyster, he keeps the pearl, not the shell. That you toss.”
“I don’t like oysters. But if you’re referring to Mr. Oberwart’s terrariums, all I ever saw was bugs and dirt.”
“Technically, it’s not dirt. It’s wood and leaves. They call it substrate. I learned that from reading. Do you read?”
“Mister, you’re beggin’ for it.”
Quint stepped in close. “I sure am, cracker.”
Ezekiel’s hands tightened into fists. He looked from Quint to the Green Cab idling a few yards away. The driver—a kid in a blue baseball cap—was watching them intently.
“How’d you meet the old man, Zeke?”
“He put an ad in the paper for a driver. He never learned, he said.”
“That makes two of us. So you answered it out of Christian charity? Wanted to be a Good Samaritan?”
“He offered me a hundred bucks a week to shuttle him around.”
“Pretty decent rates for an old man in a trailer park, wouldn’t you say?”
“Want to know what I think?”
“You go to hell.”
“I think you got curious where the old man’s cash was coming from. I think you started asking questions and the old man started answering because the old man likes to talk. So he showed you his bughouse, his tanks, and all his treasures.”
The redneck spat on Quint’s shoe.
Quint looked down. “So that’s it.”
Ezekiel folded both arms over Christ’s upturned eyes.
Quint smiled. “All right. Thanks for your time, Zeke.”
He turned, got back in the cab.
Ezekiel slapped a mosquito on his neck and drew away a smack of blood.
In the west lightning ripped the sky, spilling a slow roll of thunder.
The storm broke pouring cold rain onto the hot streets of Morris Creek. Flash floods washed paper cups and plastic food wrappers out of the sewers and onto the sidewalks. Basements flooded. The downtown stores and shopping centers emptied. From behind his desk Quint watched the world outside whip itself into a mad frenzy. Rain sheeted across the asphalt in the headlights of idling cars—big bright drops swirling like stars in cosmic flux, entire galaxies born on the pavement. Quint sat in the dark, counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder.
When the downpour finally ceased and the storm was flickering to the east beyond the river, Quint called a cab. At 11:34 p.m. the driver dropped him in the alley behind Ari Oberwart’s, where Quint instructed him to wait for him in the parking lot of the Conoco at the end of the block.
Quint pushed through the mimosa branches—the hard rain had cast more blossoms to the ground—and climbed the chain link fence, a more deliberate act now that one arm was out of commission and his right side was sewn up. The wire at the top of the fence tore a flap from the rear pocket of his slacks. He slogged through wet grass and crept alongside the bug house and around front to the door. From the inside band of his hat he pulled a tiny lock pick and tension wrench. He inserted the wrench into Oberwart’s new padlock first, held it in place with his lips, then used his good hand to lever open the lock with the pick.
Once inside, he pulled the door shut and flicked on his penlight.
He moved among the tanks, peering closely at the substrate in each. A few of the giant beetles inside the tanks scurried from his light. Others remained still in the rotting mulch, their antennae listing in Quint’s direction.
He shined the light over Oberwart’s work station at the rear of the shed. What he saw had not been there the day before: spools of wire, cutters, a stack of six-inch-deep shadow boxes. Quint remembered similar boxes from his childhood, only smaller. He’d mounted butterflies in them. Also scattered about the table were several jars as big or bigger than the one Oberwart had brought to his office the morning before. Only these were filled with cotton and gauze, not beetles and substrate, the bottoms inside coated with thick layers of plaster of Paris. Quint recognized these, as well. They were killing jars for chloroforming insects.
Also among the implements on the table were a box of surgical gloves and a scalpel, the tip crusted black.
Quint let the penlight linger on the blade.
Slowly, he turned to the nearest terrarium.
He stuck the light between his teeth and wrangled the lid free.
The moist smell of decay rose up from the tank. The beetles scurried for cover, burrowing into the substrate, disappearing.
With his right arm—the one in the sling—he rolled his left shirt sleeve as far up as he could. Then he took a deep breath and plunged his fingers into the tanks. He felt inside the moist leaves, the coconut fibers, the bark. He went up to his wrist, brushed a beetle, felt its carapace scrape his knuckles before it shot away. Something soft and squishy moved between his fingers. He cringed, kept feeling. There: something cold, hard, lifeless. Not bark. Not beetle. His fingers closed. He turned the penlight on his fist, opened it.
In his palm lay a diamond the size of his thumbnail.
Quint set the stone on the work table and stuck his hand back in the tank. In less than a minute he’d found two more. He looked around the shed and counted at least a dozen terrariums lining the walls, all of them full of substrate and bugs.
He replaced the tank’s lid as quickly as he could with one arm, switched off his light, and pocketed the three diamonds.
He thought, as he refastened the lock outside the shed, that a great deal of last night’s mystery—why the boys had tossed the tanks—had just been resolved.
He was turning for the fence when something heavy struck him from behind. He pitched forward in the rain-wet grass, and before he could get his balance, strong arms seized him from behind and another hand smashed a wet gauze pad against his nose and mouth.
The world tilted.
Quint woke in darkness thick as oil to the horrible stench of sulfur and the urgent ringing of a cell phone. He lay in a shallow trough of foul, metallic tasting water.
His eyes were streaming tears, his nostrils burning.
He sat up, coughing and spitting. His injured shoulder was throbbing, and there was a new pain now in his left knee. He eased back against what felt like a concave metal wall.
The cell phone’s ring was amplified so that it seemed to be shrieking in his skull. He was in a tank of some sort. A hollow chamber.
He reached for his inner jacket pocket. No sooner had his fingers touched the little silver phone Janie had bought him than it ceased ringing. He fumbled it out, flipped it open. The LCD cast his face in a crescent of blue light.
He felt in his hip pocket for the penlight, found it, switched it on.
Its feeble glow did little to drive away the dark. He ran the light along the wall to his left and right, saw the rusted, sulfur-stained innards of what could only be a train car. The water at his feet was not very deep, likely rain from the storm.
How long had he been here?
He tucked the phone back in his pocket and struggled to his feet. He hobbled along the length of the car, shining the light over the walls and ceiling.
The hatch was directly above where he’d awakened. He reached for it. Stretching, he heard the stitches in his side rip and felt blood begin to seep through his shirt. His fingertips barely scraped the edge of the hand wheel.
He dropped his arm, wheezing. His lungs were on fire from the sulfur.
He felt a sudden surge of panic like a riptide pulling him down into the bottomless dark. He did the only thing he could think to fight it off. He jabbed two fingers into the gash in his side and let the pain fill his head, nothing else.
When the panic had passed, he remembered the phone.
He flipped it open, found a single bar, and dialed Janie’s cell.
She picked up immediately. “Are you okay? I’ve been trying to call.”
“I’m in a spot here,” Quint said. “I may be dead already. It’s getting tough to breathe. I don’t know how long I’ve been in here.”
“We’re right outside.”
“Really? Where am I?” Quint turned his head and vomited.
“You’re at the paper mill, in a train car.” He heard her speaking to someone else:
“But which one is it?”
Then she said to him: “Bang on the walls.”
Quint pounded the metal with as much strength as he could muster.
“We got you, boss.”
“Janie, don’t hang up.”
“I’m with you.”
Quint heard the sound of shoes scuffing metal outside, above.
“Butterfly,” he breathed into the phone. “First butterfly I ever caught, Janie, it
beat itself to death against the glass. Its wings…they came apart like ash….”
“We’re opening it now.”
The hatch overhead squalled. The hand wheel began to turn.
At the hospital his clothes were stripped and thrown away. He was put under a warm shower. His skin was broken out in red welts from the sulfur.
In his room, only half conscious, he was aware of two blurry shapes retreating from his bedside. One of them was Janie, the other a tall, broad-shouldered sheriff’s deputy in a cowboy hat. He heard Janie saying, “He took the phone. If he hadn’t taken the phone, I couldn’t have, there would have been no way—” Her voice broke. The deputy put an arm around her, ushered her out.
Quint glanced over at the bedside table, where his silver phone perched next to a hospital-issue vase containing an artificial daisy.
He pulled his mother’s afghan to his chin and slept.
* * *
“GPS, Squint,” Janie explained the day following his release from the hospital.
They sat together in their booth at the Beacon mid-afternoon, Quint sipping coffee, Janie eating cherry pie.
“I subscribed our phones to an Internet locator service.”
“How much does that cost?”
“$12.95 a month.”
Quint held aloft his coffee. “To the twenty-first century,” he said.
“You know the taxi you hired waited two hours at the Conoco before he gave up waiting and went back to the cab stand. He and the other cabbies played cards the rest of the night. When I came in the morning after the storm and found you not there, first thing I did was call Green Cab. Why’d you never learn to drive?”
“No one ever offered to teach me, I guess.”
“Well, I’m offering.”
“Thanks, but I’d better take it slow.” Quint let his gaze wander around the Beacon, taking in the familiar patrons on their stools, the smells of bacon grease and cigarettes, the dust motes shimmering in the picture windows.
“Grover came by this morning while you were sleeping,” Janie said. She slid a piece of paper across the table.
“USNCB,” Quint read. “This is a wanted notice.”
“Sheriff ran his name through Interpol. Our client was an international jewel smuggler. His father was a Russian soldier, made off with a bunch of the Third Reich’s loot after the war. Deranged Nazi, hello?”
“He wasn’t a Nazi, Janie. His mother was Polish.” Quint read the fax. “Volker Hubert, alias Karl Lambert, alias Edgar Wichmann, alias Ari Oberwart.” The picture in the upper right corner was fuzzy, and the man was at least twenty years younger, but there was no mistaking the mane of white hair, the piercing blue eyes.
“Yeah, well, Grover said the state police still got bupkiss on Mr. Alias and the Good Samaritan. Morning Glory landlord said the old man left in the middle of the night. He found the shed and the trailer empty. Cleaned out. Sheriff said the same about Zeke’s camp. APB’s still out on the Firebird, too.”
Quint sipped his coffee.
“So,” Janie said. “Oberwart breeds giant beetles, kills them, sews sixty-year-old diamonds into them, mounts them, smuggles them to parts unknown. He moves from place to place every six months or so, lives alone. Always hires a driver. Here he makes the mistake of hiring a redneck who gets wise to his scheme. Redneck has some buddies raid the old man’s shed. They make off with what they can, dig out the loot, toss the bugs in the river, divvy up and blow town. Zeke, meanwhile, stays behind because the old man’s gotten desperate and hired a private dick. Zeke figures he can’t take a chance on some peeping tom learning the truth, and if he skips town, well, Oberwart will know it was him.”
Janie swallowed the last bite of her pie. “Of all the stuff I don’t know and probably will never know about this case,” she said, “there’s one thing—one thing—I can’t get out of my head.”
Quint only looked at her.
“Just before you passed out in the train car, when Grover’s deputy was opening the hatch, you said the first butterfly you ever caught beat itself to death against the glass. What did that mean?”
Quint stared over the rim of his coffee cup past Janie to the bright parking lot beyond the diner. He didn’t answer for a long while. Finally, he said, “I guess it means I didn’t want to die alone.”
They sat there for a time, each immortal in the other’s presence, warm and silent, full of coffee and pie.