Seven Days Dead continues the Emile Cinq-Mars series of crime novels (available May 24, 2015).
During an epic storm in the Gulf of Maine a lone woman races—first by car, then by a life-threatening sea crossing—to the island of Grand Manan. Her father is dying—will she make it in time?
Others also venture out into the maelstrom that night, including a mysterious band of men and women who gather on Seven Days Work, the sheer cliff that overlooks the wild sea. A housekeeper, a pastor, and a strange recluse are also wandering about out in the tempest. Who else risks being out in the turbulent black night? And how many murder victims will be revealed at the break of dawn?
Such questions will engage retired Montreal detective Émile Cinq-Mars. He and his wife seek shelter from the same storm as they make their way to the island for a rare summer vacation from both his police work and her horse stable. With a mounting death toll, a lengthy list of suspects, and a murder in the deep past that somehow affects the present, Cinq-Mars is drawn into uncovering ancient secrets that have led to murder. When the villainy turns against him, another race ensues, this time to solve the crimes before his visit to the island ends in tragedy.
Time and tide wait for no man and no woman.
And here, she reminds herself again, the tide is swift.
All day, waves kicked up across the Gulf of Maine, out to the Atlantic and into the Bay of Fundy, a waterway shaped like the opening jaws of a shark. Winds staggered ships. Surprised by a whole gale expected to track south but veering north instead, fishermen yearn for safe harbor, the family table, a lover’s nudge. Yet no boat attempts landfall tonight, the tempest too wicked against these craggy shores, the combination a treachery.
Boats wait this one out at sea.
Ashore, deeper inside the bay, sirens wail to warn of the sea’s return. A seventy-foot range in depth is a danger to the unwary. The story goes that a champion Thoroughbred with a top-notch jockey on its back cannot outrun this tidal bore. Not that any horse is out on the flats tonight. A sleek gray Porsche, though, running down a highway parallel to the inflow, also fails to maintain Fundy’s relentless clip. The driver’s vision is reduced by the deluge and ponds pooling on the road further impede the car’s progress. Yet she accepts the challenge, her speed limited by the dark of the gale, the barreling funnels of wind, occasional hairpin turns, and sudden blind dips that in these conditions are life-threatening. Spurred on by the likelihood of an imminent death in her family, the night traveler perseveres and, against her better judgment, presses on.
Time will not wait for anyone, she knows, and certainly not for her.
Nor will the tide.
Nor will her dying father.
Yet the race to arrive before his death is on.
* * *
A man familiar with the driver’s father, acquainted with his idiosyncrasies and failings—if not the depths of his depravity—endures the storm in the comfort of a church manse, his home. Rain pelts down on the rooftop and windows, forlorn hounds bay in the stovepipe, gusts clatter the shingles and shake the doors. Yet for all the commotion on the exterior walls of this old wooden cottage, inside, the Reverend Simon Lescavage feels quite snug. He sips a cup of English Breakfast. In the light of a frizzy oil lamp he’s reading a book on cosmology. Complicated stuff. Hours ago the electricity went down and it’s not likely to be up anytime soon, so lamps and candles are lit, a flashlight is handy, his tea is quite soothing, and the small fire in the hearth—not necessary in summer but needed to heat a beverage tonight—burns cozily, crackles. His book, a challenge, surely is just the ticket for the solitary evening.
Theories on the origins of the universe fascinate him. He reads more about quantum mechanics these days than about theology, and revels in the study of black holes and star formations. Not long ago, in grappling with notions concerning miracles in a sermon, he tripped up and embarked on a tangent that gave a nod to string theory and dark energy. His congregation was baffled. In his current phase, the minister neglects Biblical homilies, and reserves his adoration for scientific inquiries into the cosmos.
Not that a snippet of that expanse is viewed from his island home tonight.
Out there in the deeper blackness, islands stand as guardians to the Bay of Fundy. A few are rarely inhabited: Kent, Sheep and Hay, and Machias, where the puffins roost, and farther north there’s White Head, Cheney, and Ross, the wee sisters of Great Duck, Gulf Islet, and a more northern, less well-known Nantucket. All of them, and Grand Manan, the largest and most populated of the scattering, where Lescavage is comfortably lodged, are being slammed without any echo of mercy. Waves roil also across the salmon farms. From near space, they appear as crop circles in neat, tight rows upon the sea, each wide enough to harbor a battleship as well as three-quarters of a million fish. Yet the salmon are secure within their cages tonight, and Lescavage assumes that across the Isle of Grand Manan everyone is secure enough as well, doing what he’s doing, if not reading then huddling close, under a blanket or wearing earbuds to listen to music that mutes the bedlam of the storm.
He assumes that in nine months’ time babies will bob to the surface, the final flotsam blown ashore by this wind and sea. Other wives, bereft of companionship tonight, fret about their men upon the deep, and Lescavage worries along with them.
Silently, secretly, he prays for their lives.
Old habits, as the adage goes, and he concurs, die hard.
His head is bowed when the phone rings, disrupting his peace. Tempted not to answer, he accepts that on a night such as this no one will believe that he’s not home, so in that sense he has little choice. The phone goes on ringing. A persistence that’s annoying, as it invokes his servitude.
Simon Lescavage maintains only one telephone in his dwelling. It squats on a small table in the kitchen, buried beneath a newspaper and packaging for spaghetti noodles he’s neglected to toss into the recycling bin. He gets rid of the debris first, compressing into a plastic bag what he’ll transfer outside later, then shifts the Telegraph Journal to one side and picks up the receiver after a dozen rings. He does not intend to sound gruff, but promptly betrays himself with his tone.
Rain, at that instant, drums more violently on the windowpanes.
He recognizes the woman’s voice, as she’s his housekeeper every second Tuesday and on Sunday afternoons sweeps out the church. She’s explaining her situation at some length, with urgency but with no attempt to be concise.
He finally interrupts the spiel. “What is it this time, really?”
She continues to vent.
Grumpily, Lescavage interrupts, “I’m not all that impressed. Are you?”
She hardly takes a breath, and the pastor finds himself distracted by the beat of rain on the glass while she follows through on her rant. He already knows that if this conversation continues in its present vein, he’s likely to be out in the weather himself momentarily. He’s a slight man who at first glance looks unduly fit for fifty-seven. His 142 pounds comes across to most people as trim, yet five years ago he was 124, which had been his average for decades. The additional weight suits him. He’s rarely called scrawny anymore. Women no longer shout at him from their doorways commanding that he enter their homes and eat something, to fatten up, although they may have stopped all that because he’s older now. Or they are. Or because when he did eat in their homes, little came of it, he did nothing more than chow down. He’s no longer quite so skinny, has never thought of himself as short and has refused to gauge his height as merely average. He hates that designation, a nod to vanity that in the overall scheme of his life is rare for him—although it’s true that a buzz cut is meant to preempt impending baldness. Lescavage has never tried to pass himself off as tall, that would be absurd, yet along with his self-consciousness about being diminutive he’s compounded the matter by denying what any tape measure and the attitudes of others contend. He flies in the face of that logic. Once only he put up a description of his attributes on an online Christian dating site, choosing to describe himself as “well-proportioned,” which in his mind covered both his exceptional skinniness back then and a general lack of tallness. Otherwise, he’s not notably vain.
“All right,” he says, ceding to the housekeeper’s request. Always the pushover, and perhaps resenting that about himself, his response to her next suggestion is strident. “No, Ora! Not a chance! I’ll arrive in a huff. That’s it, that’s all. I reserve the right to be my petulant self. Tell him that. Say it to his face. Tell him—” Lescavage weighs what pithy remark he might charge the housekeeper to pass along to her current employer, a man on his last legs if that impression is to be believed, although Lescavage doesn’t. “Ora, sorry, never mind. I’ll tell him myself.”
He nods, as if she can see the gesture through the phone line, and adds after she states some further opinion, “I agree with you. It is better this way.”
She hangs up without a subsequent word. The Reverend Lescavage follows suit. For a moment he reads from the newspaper—a headline has grabbed his attention—but, disappointed in the story, he puts it down and blows out the wall lamp in the kitchen. In dimmer light he strides through to the front door.
The pastor snuffs a pair of candles and lowers the wicks on oil lamps.
In the vestibule, Lescavage lifts rain pants off a hook and bends to retrieve his boots. He’s seated upon an antique pine bench, one that might have served a shoemaker eons ago or supported the ample backside of a fisherman repairing a net. Pausing, he considers that he may have been summoned out tonight to slog through the wet for another man’s amusement, but he pulls the rain pants on over his trousers anyway and works his feet into the boots. He is the son of a clergyman, his mother a fisherman’s daughter, and he takes particular pride in the maternal side of his lineage. He knows that the nuance has held him in good stead among his flock. His people, as he calls them, have generally been fond of him, even though lately they’re not sure what to make of a pastor who’s lost his faith yet still enjoys, and wants to keep, his job. When he explains himself, it’s all so complicated. He stands, adjusts the pants’ suspenders over his shoulders, slips on his slicker and rain hat, and braces himself for the wild, warm wind and the fearsome onslaught of the torrent.
He’s unwilling to drive in this weather, or in this dark. Not on these roads. No matter, it’s a short distance, and initially trees protect him from a portion of the bluster, their tops swaying, branches flailing the air. He’s stunned by the volume of the wind’s roaring. Away from his house, everything is so dark that he can’t see the trees anymore, and when he holds a hand up, he can’t make out his fingers. His feet barely discern the pavement. Like stepping on stones in a fast-flowing stream. Lescavage walks up Old Airport Road, then turns right onto Lighthouse Road, a simple intersection that tonight is maddening to locate. With a bend in direction, the wind hits hardest. He dares not open both eyelids in the gusts. His face stings. The Orrock mansion is farther along, but while the distance is not far—an uphill walk he’s done a thousand times, often to take in the vista from the lighthouse—on this trek the required effort in the teeth of the gale is immense.
He leaves the lighthouse and its muted lamp behind.
Thanks to a generator, lights are on in Alfred Orrock’s big house and across his yard, and Lescavage easily finds his way up the long, winding path. Standing under the porch light and a protective overhang, he shakes the rain off in a style not dissimilar to a dog’s. He rings the bell, then readies himself for anything.
The young housekeeper has the door open in a wink and bounds outside.
“Whoa, whoa, Ora! Where’s the fire?”
She’s a step past him, but as he clutches her arm, she retreats. Although well dressed for the weather, she takes another look at the night. Hers will be a longer hike home than the distance Lescavage just covered, and the weather is more wicked than it appeared while she was safely ensconced indoors. The way the wind bellows over the cliffs and how the rain slams down from one direction, then another, give her pause. Protected by the porch overhang, she pulls her rain hat over her ears, holds it there with both hands. She crinkles her nose and, with her mouth in some odd contortion, remarks, “I don’t need to watch him die, do I? I’m not paid for that.”
Ora is pleasantly chubby, with a drooping nose, and quite a tall forehead above a round face the world regards as plain. She’s a bright-cheeked young lady. Lescavage finds her cute in her way.
“I put in my hours. Anyway, I’m not a freaking nurse.”
“Ora, he’s not dying. Ask yourself, since when are we ever that lucky?”
Her eyes asquint, she retorts, “He says he is! Doesn’t he? I wouldn’t put it past the old prick bugger anyway. Sorry for my language there, Rev, but I’ve had it up to here with him.” She frees up a hand to measure to the height of her scalp.
Lescavage removes his rain hat under the protection of the overhang, lets the water pour off. “Yeah, well,” he concedes, “if the shoe fits.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? What shoe?”
“It’s an expression.”
“So aren’t I the stupid mutt.”
“It’s a very common expression.”
“So now I’m dumber than the dumb asses.”
“Ora.” He sighs. “You called him a ‘prick bugger.’ I’ve not heard that one before. All I’m saying is, I don’t think it’s unfair to call him that.”
“Watch your language there, Rev.”
She pulls her hat more tightly down her cheeks. An umbrella would not survive two seconds out here except in a lull, so the strategy of clamping both hands to her rain hat is wise.
“You won’t stay?” His voice has gone falsely plaintive, coaxing, a plea.
“I’m gonzo, Revy. He’s all yours. See ya on the flip!”
True to her word, she splashes down into the broad puddle at the base of the steps, cocks her head to the right and into her shoulder against the wind, and stomps through an enveloping blackness beyond the fringe of walkway lamps. Lescavage watches her go for longer than he can actually make out her form, but he knows what this caring gesture really means. He’s putting off the inevitable. He goes inside through the open door, then shuts it tightly.
Amazing, he thinks, how much quieter this house is than his own in the midst of an onslaught.
He sticks his rain hat on the top hook of a shiny aluminum wall-mounted rack. His jacket, stuck to him by the wet, peels off slowly, like skin, and while trying to be free of it, he calls into the house. “Alfred! Upstairs or down?” He stays quiet, awaiting a response, but receives none. No sound is apparent other than the faint hum of the backyard generator and the underlying chant of the rain. “I know you can hear me!” he attests. “You might be dead but you’re not deaf!”
An insult might shake loose a reaction, but not this time. He continues to strip off his outerwear and wedges the boots from his feet, dries his face on a sleeve, then admits himself to the house and stands there in his socks.
In the living room off the grand foyer, the La-Z-Boy is vacant. A snack that Ora Matheson threw together for either her employer or herself—cheeses and an assortment of crackers, bread slices, preserves, and a few green grapes—has gone largely untouched. Lescavage is instantly aware of his own desire for a nosh. He cracks a scone in half, slathers on butter and raspberry jam, and has a nibble. Before finishing, he prepares a second scone then carries his snack deeper into the house.
Opulence abounds, but he’s used to all that and pays it no mind. Outside these walls, the house is legendary and valued to be more glamorous than it actually is. He and Ora entertained themselves one time by repeating stories they’d overheard glorifying Alfred Orrock’s home. They are among a select few to be admitted, and due to the proprietor’s frailty, both have been entrusted with keys. Yet their opinion of the place is never believed. Most islanders, preferring the imaginative tales, presume they’ve been intimidated into keeping mum, that they probably live under threat of retaliation if they speak. The stair railing is made of gold, so it’s been reported. The chandelier of diamonds. A subterranean wine cellar the size of a submarine will double as a bomb shelter at the world’s end. The upstairs master bedroom has its own indoor swimming pool, and when Ora scoffed at the idea, saying, “That’s ridiculous!” she was informed about secret doors to secret chambers, and, of course, the secret pool. “You don’t know more than nothing, do you? You’re just the hired help. Billy Kerr’s uncle worked on that house, it wasn’t all mainlanders.” She was excoriated for being dim, so unaware of the obvious. She simply didn’t have a head for the plain facts, people scolded.
One plain fact that the Reverend Lescavage knows, because he asked Billy Kerr’s uncle who was aging badly in Dark Harbour, is that the man helped build the chimney. Only that. No secret rooms. He never stepped inside the house while it was under construction, but he did see a floor plan. The layout for massive rooms. Only mainlanders built the interior, and what they said about it during the process was never believed, and, after they’d gone home, soon forgotten. The sadness of the rooms—the absence of life, of ceremony, of tradition, of people—leaves the more prevalent impression on the minister every time he visits, so all that is quite fancy here strikes him as unimpressive.
He climbs the wide staircase. Halfway up, it turns. If this were a daytime sojourn, or a moonlit night, the full-height window at this landing would show a seascape of shining beauty. The waves undoubtedly crash way below, unseen in the dark, their roar obliterated by the rain, wind, and, to a lesser extent, the generator.
The visitor goes straight on through to Alfred Royce Orrock’s bedroom.
Why anyone would need a space this massive just to sleep in baffles him always. Now, a space to die in. But Lescavage rejects that bit about death’s door being ajar. Just another Orrock ploy. A way to get something nobody wants to give him. Another craven extortion. Probably, anyway.
And yet, Lescavage admits, seeing the man under the fluffy duvet, partially propped up by pillows and sleeping rather peacefully, he looks barely alive. He observes the man in his slumber and finishes the last scone. Slaps his hands together to rid himself of the crumbs, then pulls up the bedside chair put there for the convenience of visitors like him, or only for him, and sits down.
The tyrant does seem sound asleep.
An occasional splutter indicates that he remains among the living.
“Alfred,” the pastor says gently, quietly, “it’s me. Simon.” Orrock does not stir. Yet Lescavage remains unconvinced by this evidence of nocturnal bliss. “Don’t invite me over here to tell me you’re asleep.”
The man’s eyelids flicker, the lips move, and for a moment the minister accepts that the other man is indeed frail. When he speaks, the voice is dry, a scratchiness in the tone, but the attitude, the attitude, remains pure Orrock.
“It wasn’t a goddamned invitation,” the ailing man decrees.
He seems to be waking up to his visitor’s presence, his eyes straining to stay open, and he adjusts his weight and straightens his back. By her own claim, Ora Matheson is his housekeeper and not a nurse, but Lescavage gives credit where it’s due—she’s done a fine job looking after the old geezer. One minor stain on the lapel of his pajamas, but otherwise he looks tidy. His thin gray hair has been combed. He’s clean-shaven. The spaces around him are in order and the bed is neat except for where he’s lying under the covers. Even at that he doesn’t disturb the duvet very much, having gone thin. Suddenly, the old patriarch winces and holds his eyes shut, waiting for a marauding affliction to pass.
“You told Ora to ask me here,” Lescavage points out to him.
“A command,” the man qualifies. “I ordered you to get your ass up here. On the double. Obedient puppy that you are, you obeyed. As you should.” He swallows, and moistens his lips with his tongue. “I’m reasonably satisfied, but you could have been quicker about it. You wouldn’t have had to wake me then.”
Lescavage stares at him awhile, noticing the scalloped cheeks, the desiccated skin around his eyes, nose, and mouth, the exaggerated wrinkling at the base of his neck. Ironic, the dismissive, autocratic words mated to the scratchy, failing voice. He gazes upon him long enough that he’s able to get the man’s attention, and Orrock fully opens his eyes to look back at him.
“What?” Orrock asks.
“Fuck you,” the minister says.
“Excuse me? Is that any way for my spiritual adviser to talk? Especially now.”
“What’s so special about now?”
“I’m on the brink of fucking death. I’m about to meet your goddamned saints. Do you want me to put in a good word for you or what?”
Lescavage stretches in his chair, then clasps a wrist and rests his head back against his hands. He’s willing to warm to this joust. “Your spiritual adviser is the devil himself. Doesn’t he swear?”
“Not like a sailor, no,” Orrock maintains, “and never at me. Give him half a chance, you’ll find out he has the soul of a poet. As do I.”
The pastor isn’t certain, but detects the hint of a smile on the faded, drawn visage. “Right. Poet. How are you anyway?”
On a dime, Orrock turns on him again. “Ah, you sweet bitch, how do you think I am? I’m dying. Just because you’re too scrawny to squeeze out a decent turd, Lescavage, doesn’t mean you’re not pure shit on a stick to me.”
The minister looks away in anger a moment. “Then why ask me over, Alf? Or command me? How can I help? Do I look like some sort of grave digger to you?”
“You stink. You’re putrid,” Orrock mutters aimlessly, adding, “I need a drink.”
“Ora could’ve made you a drink.”
“Or you can,” the old man asserts.
Lescavage is up for this battle. “Or not.”
Alfred Orrock gathers his energy. He indicates his water glass with a jut of his chin, a request Lescavage is willing to entertain. He helps hold the glass for him as the old man quenches his thirst.
“Whiskey,” he demands when finished, “with a dash of water and one cube.”
“Fuck you, Alfred.”
“Stop with the language. I’m not saying you can’t serve yourself.”
“I’m good, thanks.” Lescavage, though, does not sound convinced.
“All right.” The old man paces himself, the words emerging slowly. Perhaps affected by that rhythm, they gain a measure of gravity. “Truth is, there’s more to it.”
“That’s always the case with you.”
“I need more than a drink. I need one righteous piss.”
“Ora could’ve passed you the bedpan. You don’t need to drag me out here on a night like this so you can take a flying leak.”
“And—” He coughs, then uses the back of his hand to clean off a dab of spittle. “I’m not walking too good today, Simon. Feet like lead. My back’s in a vise. I need you to escort me to the can, then pull my pants down so I can take a crap. How do you like that?” He wipes some nastiness from his lips with the back of his hand. “I can’t ask that young thing with the cute titties to help me shit twice on the same day. It’s not dignified. As she reminds me so bloody often, she’s not a nurse.” He might be smiling, although it’s hard to tell as his facial muscles haven’t so much as twitched while holding his visitor’s steady gaze. One frail finger points at the minister, an implied accusation. “You, Simon,” he says, “will help me with that.”
Lescavage blows air from his lungs, looks away, and crosses his arms as though to indicate defiance. But he doesn’t find much of an argument for mutiny. “This has nothing to do with your dignity or your despicable bowels. All you care about is humiliating the other person.”
Orrock’s smile is quite evident now. “Not the other person, Lescavage. In my prime, maybe. Maybe. Now? I only have it in for you.”
The minister thinks the matter through. In so many elderly people, he’s noticed that their gentle failings—frights, regrets, grievances, revolving patterns—all come home to roost in their dotage and grow exaggerated as the person’s capabilities and faculties fade. Orrock is a mean man at heart, who is not about to reform at this stage of his life, not unless a few ghosts from decades and centuries past and future suddenly elect to haunt him.
“Seriously? Alfred? You can’t shit on your own?”
“I would if I could. Too long a hike across this floor. It’s a goddamn expedition. I refuse to use a bedpan for that, or shit where I sleep. I don’t own a walker. Here’s the kicker. I need assistance to squat down.”
Standing, the visitor peels back the duvet and reveals the skeletal form of the island patriarch. He looks shockingly frail in his too-large pajamas. At least two sizes too big for him now. A hip bone juts out, lacking flesh. Over the last couple of months, including just two days ago, Lescavage has seen the man only in street clothes, which apparently camouflaged his deterioration.
“I don’t know,” the minister remarks quietly, “if you’ve heard about a novel idea. It’s called a hospital?”
“Yeah, where at my age they force you to wear diapers. They never come when you call. Then bill you a mint. When they know you’re rich, they bill for all the poor who can’t pay. And don’t talk to me about nurses. Pack of thieves, the lot.”
“We have health care now. We’ve had it for your entire adult life.”
“I’ll die at home, thanks.”
“Yeah,” Lescavage murmurs, “about that. Dying. Promises, promises.”
Any such discussion will have to wait, as the men fall to the logistics of their procedure. The minister criticizes the ailing patient for not buying a wheelchair. “Lord knows you can afford one.”
“I never foresaw the need. Anyway, when I die, it ends up in a junkyard.”
“Donate it to the needy.”
“Socialism. Forget it.”
“Actually, it’s called charity.”
“Bullshit,” the minister sums up.
“Wash out. Your mouth. With soap.”
They must coordinate their movements. Orrock shows determination, but he also wails when a leg or a hip twists. Lescavage is shocked by the man’s weightlessness. He’s probably dipped below 150 pounds, when not so long ago he was at least forty more than that. Even his remaining weight somehow feels as though it’s composed of air. Or of dust.
“Up,” Lescavage instructs him.
The old man still has drive. With one arm slung over the pastor’s shoulders, Orrock hobbles off across the carpeted floor to the bathroom. Entwined in that embrace, he intones, “Sweetheart, after I piss and shit and you make me a drink—if you’re lucky, my last—I shall grant you the honor of hearing my confession.”
Lescavage shortens his gait to suit the other’s man’s ministeps. “We’ve been through this. I’m not Catholic, neither are you. I don’t do confession.”
“You’re not even a believer! So don’t tell me what you do or don’t do. You’re a fraud. But you will hear my confession.”
In the past, he’s advised him to call in a Roman Catholic priest if he’s so hell-bent on confessing before his death, but he lost that debate then and presumes he’ll lose it again. Still, he insists, grumbling, “I don’t hear confessions.”
“You’ll hear mine,” Orrock tells him, a tone that sounds like a warning. “By the way, Ora wanted out tonight. That’s why you’re here. I’ve been working her too hard. The poor girl needs to get laid. Not that you don’t, but for her it’s an option.”
The bathroom, the minister once remarked, is as large as his own living room, and he might not be wrong. Perhaps this is where the idea of a swimming pool comes from, as there’s nearly enough room for one, and the spa tub is huge. The reverend assists the man to the toilet and gets him turned around. They both work to aim his bum above the bowl. Lescavage tugs the pajama bottoms down, exposing his skinny legs. With his arms wrapped around his nurse for the evening, Orrock lowers himself. A difficult descent. His legs provide only wobbly scaffolding. Seated, he bends forward, which strikes the minister as an act of modesty as the pajama shirt flops over his privates. He’s not surprised when the old man retaliates, for this is humiliating to him, and he will not go through it without inflicting damage on his only witness.
“First, sniff my poop, Simon Lescavage. Then wipe my ass. Don’t forget to flush. Next, fix me a drink. After that, have the decency to hear my confession.”
Neither man speaks as they listen to the tinkle of urine.
“I’ll fix that drink now. While I’m waiting.”
“Sure. Go ahead. Pour a stiff one for yourself. You’re going to need it.”
Suddenly, Orrock is interrupted by a pain across his belly. He jerks forward and cries out, an involuntarily reflex as he clutches his helper and hangs on.
“You all right?” Lescavage immediately regrets his words. He expects Orrock to lash back at him for the inane comment. Of course he’s not all right. But the man is in too much agony to ridicule him just yet.
“Christ, that hurt,” he whispers.
His skin color seems more pale now, washed out. Lescavage observes him as the man releases his grip and eases back down on the toilet seat. “At least it doesn’t stink so bad,” the minister says.
Orrock accepts the kindness. “Small mercies, hey. Small mercies.”
He needs a minute to recover.
Toilet paper is stacked on a portable stake. People in town would probably say it’s pure silver, but it’s polished aluminum, standard fare. Orrock removes the top roll from the column, then holds it out to his helper. He gazes up at him.
“Now wipe,” he says.
The two men have locked eyes. Neither moves.
“I can’t bend around,” Orrock explains.
Still, Lescavage stands still. He feels like a man being tested who does not understand the rules of engagement, or the possible outcome or the repercussions.
“I can’t reach,” the man on his humble throne stipulates.
Lescavage looks away, across the marble floor, over the spa tub to the window, where the wind and rain fiercely pound, then back at him.
That peculiar smile appears again, the one for which there is no evidence. He’s not pleading, Alfred Orrock is only being contemptuous, when he adds, “Please.”
The minister takes the paper roll in hand. Unwinds a section. He has a sudden desire to tell this man that he’s done this before. He suffers a need to share that experience, but at the same moment he knows he won’t, for that would be breaking an unspoken pact, so he stifles the impulse. Still, he wants to explain that he’s not mortified, because once he wiped his own mother’s bottom when she was at a similar stage in her life and the nurse was absent. Like Orrock, she had every speck of her wits about her, but unlike him, she worked to mollify his trepidation.
“After what I’ve been through, dear,” she said, “with physicians and the nurses—some of them look like mere kids to me—all their awful tests, oh, after those intrusions, these silly indignities don’t matter much anymore.”
What he wanted to share, and oddly, with Orrock, was that the intimacy of the act, of wiping his mother’s bottom as she had done endlessly for him as a babe, invoked such tenderness in both of them, such a sense of love and sadness, that the act itself didn’t vex him and never stuck with him. He’s forgotten about it until now. In a way, mother and son recognized that these failing bodies did not constitute their lives. The act was a mere trifling, and did not prove to be an indignity for either of them, certainly not a humiliation. Perhaps the contrary. He was not anticipating a similar reaction in this instance, except that in invoking the previous experience he discovered himself inoculated against Orrock’s contempt and his effort to mock him, so that he could deny the pleasure the other man derived from his intended insult.
He finishes with a last full swipe, flushes, and shows Orrock no glimmer of distress.
The man grunts. Lescavage waits to be told what to do next.
“Don’t just stand there, you gutless jellyfish,” the old man gripes, by way of thanks, but his voice reflects his defeat. “Haul me up.”
They manage the slow shuffle across the floor, although pain accompanies Orrock’s repositioning upon the bed. Sweat breaks out across his brow and he succumbs to a dry wheeze and hacking.
“That drink,” he commands. “You know where I keep my liquor. You’ve raided the shelf often enough, with and without my permission.”
That’s something townsfolk never think to exaggerate. They’d be impressed with the extravagance of his bar. Enough to make the entire island tipsy.
“I don’t mind if I do help myself,” Lescavage remarks.
“Make mine a double. Then you’ll hear my bloody confession.”
Lescavage looks at him. At the skin pulled across the old man’s cheekbones and jaw, at the slack mouth. The dull pallor of impending death. He supposes that his reluctance to hear this man’s confession derives less from his pastoral tradition than from his interest in what the vile man might have to say. He actually wants to know what’s on Orrock’s mind at the hour of his death, if this is that hour, after a lifetime of subterfuge and villainy. What really counts, now that nothing is left in this world to be gained? For the clergyman, the prurient impulse is not something he welcomes in himself. Clearly unprofessional, not in the least ministerial. He feels himself a helpless gossip about to hang on to each syllable of a red-hot rumor. He’s hopelessly and, he concludes, morbidly curious. For that reason alone, he feels ashamed. He does not want to hear this man’s confession precisely because he so very much desires to absorb every detail.
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” Orrock says, as if reading his mind. “I know you’re a fraud. That’s not news to me. Just remember, we’re not hearing your confession tonight, simple Simon. Only mine.”
Lescavage lowers his head, then shakes it slowly. He whispers, “You’re the devil himself, Alfred. Incarnate. I’m about to hear the devil’s own confession.”
“Whatever,” murmurs Orrock. His eyelids flutter. He licks his chapped lips. “Something like that anyway. If you’re lucky. Fetch the whiskey, you wormy slime bucket. You shit wiper, you. Loosen my tongue.”
As always, Lescavage yields ground. “Sure. I’ll make mine a double as well.”
Copyright © 2016 John Farrow .
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JOHN FARROW is the pen name of Trevor Ferguson, is a literary legend in his native Canada. He has written eleven novels and four plays, all to extraordinary acclaim and was named Canada's best novelist in both Books in Canada and the Toronto Star. He makes regular visits to the U.S. to attend conferences like Malice Domestic and Thrillerfest. He is the author of The Storm Murders, the first book in his Storm Murders series.