Home > Thriller > The Unquiet

The Unquiet
Author:John Connolly

The Unquiet by John Connolly

 

 

 

 

 

One

 

 

Where can a dead man go?

 

A question with an answer only dead men know.

 

—NICKEL CREEK, “WHEN IN ROME”

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

This world is full of broken things: broken hearts, broken promises, broken people. This world, too, is a fragile construct, a honeycomb place where the past leaches into the present, where the weight of blood guilt and old sins causes lives to collapse and forces children to lie with the remains of their fathers in the tangled ruins of the aftermath.

 

I am broken, and I have broken in return. Now I wonder how much hurt can be visited upon others before the universe takes action, before some outside force decides that enough has been endured. I once thought that it was a question of balance, but I no longer believe that. I think that what I have done was out of all proportion to what was done to me, but that is the nature of revenge. It escalates. It cannot be controlled. One hurt invites another, on and on until the original injury is all but forgotten in the chaos of what follows. I was a revenger once. I will be one no more.

 

But this world is full of broken things.

 

Old Orchard Beach, Maine

 

1986

 

T he Guesser removed the fold of bills from his pocket, licked his thumb, and discreetly counted the day’s takings. The sun was setting, shedding itself in shards of burning red like blood and fire on the water. There were still people moving along the boardwalk, sipping sodas and eating hot buttered popcorn, while distant figures strolled along the beach, some hand in hand with another and some alone. The weather had altered in recent days, the evening temperature dropping noticeably and a sharp wind, a herald of a greater change to come, toying with the grains of sand as dusk descended, and the visitors no longer lingered as they once did. The Guesser felt his time there drawing to a close, for if they would not pause, then he could not work, and if he could not work, then he was no longer the Guesser. He would just be a small man standing before a rickety assemblage of signs and scales, trinkets and baubles. Without an audience to witness their display, his skills might as well not exist. The tourists had begun to thin, and soon this place would hold no appeal for the Guesser and his fellows: the hucksters, the nickel-a-ride merchants, the carnies, and the flimflam men. They would be forced to depart for more rewarding climes, or hole up for the winter to live on the summer’s earnings.

 

The Guesser could taste the sea and the sand upon his skin, salty and life-affirming. He never failed to notice it, even after all these years. The sea gave him his living, in its way, for it drew the crowds to it, and the Guesser was waiting for them when they came, but his affinity for it ran deeper than the money that it brought him. No, he recognized something of his own essence in it, in the taste of his sweat that was an echo of his own distant origins and the origin of all things, for he believed that a man who did not understand the lure of the sea was a man who was lost to himself.

 

His thumb flipped expertly through the bills, his lips moving slightly as he ran the count in his head. When he was done, he added the sum to his running total, then compared it with his earnings from the same time last year. He was down, just as last year had been down from the year before, and that year less than its predecessor in turn. People were more cynical now, and they and their children were less inclined to stand before a strange little man and his primitivelooking sideshow. He had to work ever harder to earn even less, although not so little that he was about to consider giving up his chosen profession. After all, what else would he do? Clear tables at a buffet, maybe? Work behind the counter at Mickey D’s like some of the more desperate retirees that he knew, reduced to cleaning up after mewling infants and careless teenagers? No, that wasn’t for the Guesser. He had been following this path for the best part of forty years, and the way he felt he figured he was good for a few more yet, assuming he was spared by the great dealer in the sky. His mind was still sharp, and his eyes, behind the black-framed lenses, were still capable of taking in all that he needed to know about his marks in order to continue to make his modest living. Some might term what he had a gift, but he did not call it that. It was a skill, a craft, honed and developed year upon year, a vestige of a sense that was strong in our ancestors but had now been dulled by the comforts of the modern world. What he had was elemental, like the tides and currents of the ocean.

 

Dave “the Guesser” Glovsky had first arrived in Old Orchard Beach in 1948, when he was thirtyseven years old, and since then both his pitch and the tools of his trade had remained largely unchanged. His little concession on the boardwalk was dominated by an old wooden chair suspended by chains from a set of R. H. Forschner scales. A yellow sign, hand-painted roughly with a squiggly line drawing of Dave’s face, advertised his occupation and his location, just for those folks who maybe weren’t entirely sure where they were or what they were seeing once they got there. The sign read: the guesser, palace playland, old orchard beach, me. The Guesser was a fixture at Old Orchard. He was as much a part of the resort as the sand in the soda and the saltwater taffy that sucked the fillings from teeth. This was his place, and he knew it intimately. He had been coming here for so long, plying his trade, that he was acutely aware of seemingly inconsequential changes to his environment: a fresh coat of paint here, a mustache shaved there. Such things were important to him, for that was how he kept his mind keen and that, in turn, was how he put food on the table. The Guesser noticed all that went on around him, filing the details away in his capacious memory, ready to extract that knowledge at the very moment when it would most profit him to do so. In a sense, his nickname was a misnomer. Dave Glovsky did not guess. Dave Glovsky noticed. He estimated. He gauged. Unfortunately, Dave “the Noticer” Glovsky did not have quite the same ring about it. Neither did Dave “the Estimator,” so Dave “the Guesser” it was, and Dave “the Guesser” it would stay. The Guesser would guess your weight to within three pounds, or you won a prize. If that didn’t salt your bacon—and there were folks who didn’t particularly want their weight broadcast to a good-humored crowd on a bright summer’s day, thank you for asking and be about your business, just as the Guesser wasn’t overly anxious to test the strength of his scales by dangling three hundred pounds of all-American womanhood from them just to prove a point—then he was equally happy to take a swing at your age, your birth date, your occupation, your choice of car (foreign or domestic), even the brand of cigarettes that you favored. If the Guesser proved to be incorrect, then you went on your merry way clutching a plastic hair clip or a small bag of rubber bands, happy in the knowledge that you’d beaten the funny little man with his crooked, childlike signs—weren’t you the smart one?—and it might take you a while to figure out that you’d just paid the man fifty cents for the pleasure of knowing something that you already knew before you arrived, with the added bonus of receiving ten rubber bands that cost about one cent wholesale. And it could be that maybe you looked back at the Guesser, wearing his white “Dave the Guesser” T-shirt, the letters ironed on in black at the concession stand farther along the boardwalk as a favor to Dave because everybody knew the Guesser, and you figured that maybe the Guesser was a very smart guy indeed.

 

Because the Guesser was smart, smart in the way that Sherlock Holmes was smart, or Dupin, or the little Belgian, Poirot. He was an observer, a man who could ascertain the main circumstances of another’s existence from his clothes, his shoes, the way he carried his cash, the state of his hands and his fingernails, the things that caught his interest and attention as he walked along the boardwalk, even the minute pauses and hesitations, the vocal inflections and unconscious gestures by which he revealed himself in a thousand different ways. He paid attention in a culture that no longer put any value upon such a simple act. People did not listen or see, but only thought that they listened and saw. They missed more than they perceived, their eyes and ears constantly attuned to novelty, to the next new thing that might be thrown at them by TV, the radio, the movies, discarding the old before they had even begun to understand its meaning and its value. The Guesser was not like them. He belonged to a different order, to an older dispensation. He was attuned to sights and smells, to whispers that sounded loud in his ears, to tiny odors that tickled at the hairs in his nose and showed up as lights and colors in his mind. His sight was only one of the faculties that he used, and often it played a subsidiary role to the rest. Like early man, he did not rely on his eyes as his primary source of information. He trusted all his senses, utilizing them to the fullest. His mind was like a radio, constantly tuned to even the faintest transmissions of others.

 

Some of it was easy, of course: age and weight were relatively simple for him. Cars were pretty much a done deal, too, at least at the beginning when most of the people who came to Old Orchard for their vacations did so in American-made cars. It was only later, in the eighties and nineties, that imports would become more prevalent, but even then, the odds were still about fifty-fifty.

 

Occupations? Well, sometimes useful details might emerge in the course of the pitch, as the Guesser listened to their greetings, their answers, the way they responded to certain key words. Even while he was listening to what they were saying, Dave was examining their clothes and skin for telltale signs: a worn or stained shirt cuff on the right hand indicated someone who might have a desk job, and a lowly one if they had to wear their work shirt on vacation, while a closer examination of their hands might reveal the impression of a pen upon the thumb and index finger. Sometimes, there was a slight flattening to the fingertips on one or both hands, the former perhaps suggesting that here was someone who was used to pounding an adding machine, the latter almost certainly the sign of a typist. Chefs always had little burns on their forearms, grill marks on their wrists, calluses upon the index fingers of their knife hands, healed and semihealed lines upon their flesh where the blades had nicked them, and the Guesser had yet to meet a mechanic who could scrub every trace of oil from the grooves of his skin. He could tell a cop simply by looking at him, and military types might just as well have arrived in full regalia. But observation without memory was useless, and the Guesser was constantly taking in details from the crowds that thronged the seashore, from fragments of conversations to flashes of possessions. If you decided to light up, then Dave would remember that the pack was Marlboro and that you were wearing a green tie. If you parked your car within sight of his concession, then you were “red suspenders Ford.” Everything was compartmentalized in case it might prove useful, for although the Guesser never really lost out on his bets, there was the small matter of professional pride and also the necessity of providing a good show for the watching folks. The Guesser hadn’t survived at Old Orchard for decades just by guessing wrong, then fobbing off the tourists with rubber bands by way of apology.

 

He pocketed his earnings and took a last look around before he prepared to close up. He was tired, and his head hurt a little, but he would miss being here once the crowds were gone. The Guesser knew that there were those who bemoaned the state of Old Orchard and felt that the beautiful beach had been ruined by a century of development, by the arrival of roller coasters and fun houses and merry-go-rounds, by the smell of cotton candy and hot dogs and suntan lotion. Maybe they were right, but there were plenty of other places for folks like that to go, while there weren’t so many where people could come for a week with their kids and live relatively cheaply while enjoying the sea, the sand, and the pleasure of trying to beat men like the Guesser. True, Old Orchard wasn’t like it once was. The kids were tougher, maybe even a little more dangerous. The town was looking more tawdry than before, and there was a sense of innocence lost rather than innocence recaptured. Ocean Park, the family-oriented religious resort that was part of Old Orchard, now looked increasingly like a throwback to another era, when education and self-improvement were as much a part of one’s vacation time as amusement and relaxation. He wondered how many of those who came here to drink cheap beer and eat lobster from paper plates knew of the Methodists who had formed the Old Orchard Campground Association back in the 1870s, sometimes attracting crowds of ten thousand or more to hear speakers extoll the benefits of a virtuous, sin-free life. Good luck trying to convince today’s tourists to give up an afternoon of sunbathing to listen to stories from the Bible. You didn’t have to be Dave the Guesser to figure out the odds on that one.

 

Nevertheless, the Guesser loved Old Orchard. Through his little concession, he had been privileged to meet men like Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong, and he had the pictures on his wall to prove it. But while those encounters represented the great peaks of his career, his dealings with ordinary people had given him consistent pleasure and allowed him to stay young and sharp inside. Without people, Old Orchard would have meant far less to him, sea or no sea. The Guesser was already putting away his signs and his scales when the man approached; or perhaps it would be truer to say that the Guesser became aware of his approach before he even saw the man, for his long-departed ancestors had not relied on their senses to play guessing games in flame-lit caves. No, they had required these senses to stay alive, to warn them of the coming of predators and enemies, and so their continued survival was dependent upon their constant engagement with the world around them.

 

Immediately, the Guesser turned casually and began taking in the stranger: late thirties, but looking older than his years; his blue jeans looser than was the current fashion; his T-shirt white but stained slightly at the belly; his boots heavy and suited to a motorcycle, not a car, yet without the wear on the soles that might have come from riding a hog; his hair dark and greased back in a D.A.; his features sharp and almost delicate; his chin small, his head compressed as if from long suffering beneath a great weight placed upon it, the bones in his face shaped like a kite beneath his tanned skin. He had a scar below his hairline: three parallel lines, as though the tines of a fork had been inserted into his flesh and dragged down toward the bridge of his nose. His mouth was crooked, permanently downturned on one side and upturned slightly on the other, giving the impression that the symbolic masks of drama had been bisected and their disparate halves fused together over his skull. The lips were too big. They might almost have been called sensuous, but this was not a man whose demeanor spoke of such things. His eyes were brown, but flecked with tiny white flaws, like stars and planets suspended in their darkness. He smelled of eau de cologne and, lurking beneath, the rank stink of rendered animal fats, of blood and decay and waste voided in the final moment when living became dying.

 

Suddenly, Dave the Guesser wished that he had decided to pack up fifteen minutes earlier, that his concession stand were firmly locked and bolted, and that he had already put as much distance between him and his beloved scales and signs as it was possible for a man of his advancing years to do. But even as he tried to break eye contact with the new arrival, he still found himself analyzing him, drawing information from his movements, his clothing, his scent. The man reached into one of the front pockets of his denims and drew from it a steel comb, which he raked through his hair with his right hand, his left following along behind to smooth down any stray strands. He cocked his head slightly to the right as he did so, as though sizing himself up in some mirror visible only to him, and it took the Guesser a moment to realize that he himself was that mirror. The stranger knew all about Dave and his “gift,” and even as he willed himself to stop, the Guesser was separating the preening man into his constituent parts, and the man was aware of what was being done and was enjoying seeing himself refracted through the older man’s perceptions.

 

Clean, pressed denims, but with dirt on the knees. The stain on the T-shirt, like dried blood. The earth beneath the nails. The smell. Sweet God, the smell…

 

And now the stranger was in front of him, and the comb was being eased back into the tight sheath of his pocket. The smile widened, all false bonhomie, and the man spoke.

 

“You the guessin’ man?” he asked. His accent had an element of the South to it, but there was Down East there as well. He was trying to hide it, but Dave’s ear was too acute. The touch of Mainer to it wasn’t native, though. No, this was a man who could blend in, when he chose, who picked up the speech patterns and mannerisms of those around him, camouflaging himself the way— The way predators did.

 

“I’m all done for today,” the Guesser said. “Tired out. I got nothing left.”

 

“Ah, you got time for one more,” came the reply, and the Guesser knew that he was not being cajoled. He was being told.