Madman on a Drum, page 1
For Nicholas and Victoria, who wonder
that the “old man” has never dedicated a book to them,
but mostly for their mother, Renée
We had no other thing to do,
Save to wait for the sign to come:
So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man’s heart beat thick and quick,
Like a madman on a drum!
With sudden shock the prison-clock
Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
From some leper in his lair.
And as one sees most fearful things
In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman’s snare
Strangled into a scream.
—from The Ballad of Reading Gaol
by Oscar Wilde
Just So You Know
They kidnapped Bobby Dunston’s daughter in the middle of a bright September afternoon off a city street that I had traveled safely maybe a thousand times when I was a kid.
Victoria and her sister, Katie, had been walking the short four blocks from St. Mark’s Elementary School to their home. They crossed Marshall Avenue at Prior, even though it took them out of their way, because their mother insisted that they cross at the lights, and followed the street north toward Merriam Park, where their father and I had once played baseball and hockey and where they now played softball, soccer, and basketball. They would have to cut across the park to reach their house on the other side, but they were short of that, just passing Longfellow Public Elementary School. There was a guy, a sixth grader like Victoria at Longfellow, and if Victoria dilly-dallied long enough sometimes she would accidentally be passing the school when it let out and he would come flying out the door and accidentally bump into her. The trick was managing the accident without being too obvious. Katie, after all, might only be in the fourth grade, but she wasn’t stupid.
They were strolling past the school, Katie urging her sister to hurry up—“Why are you so slow?”—when a white van came to an abrupt stop behind them and a man dressed in white coveralls and wearing a black ski mask leapt out and grabbed Victoria.
Victoria kicked and squirmed and flailed her arms as the man lifted her off the sidewalk, and she screamed “Fire” as loud as she could and kept screaming it—except when she was screaming at Katie to run— because that was what her father taught her to scream if she was attacked, scream “Fire” because people were more apt to pay attention than if she called for help. Only there was no one to hear Victoria’s cries as the man pulled her into the van and the door slammed shut and the van sped off.
Katie paused only long enough to memorize the van’s license plate and began running. She ran along Prior until she reached a space in the Cyclone fence where people could enter the baseball field at Merriam Park. She sprinted across the diamond, ran up the hill that bordered left field, then down the other side, crossed Wilder, ran across the lawn and into her house. She ran all that way without pause. I doubt I could have done it.
Katie was screaming when she entered the house, screaming for her mother. Shelby took her by the shoulders attempting to calm her down, all the time trying to make sense of what the child was saying.
“They took her, they took her,” Katie repeated.
Shelby told me later that she knew instantly what Katie meant but kept asking, “What, what?” anyway. It was as if her brain froze, she said. This went on until the phone rang.
The man on the other end told Shelby that he had her daughter. He told her that Victoria was safe. He told her not to worry, that he wasn’t “some kinda pervert,” that this was about money and Victoria would be returned safe and sound as long as Shelby did exactly what she was told. He told Shelby not to call the police. He told her that he had better not see an Amber Alert issued or hear about it on the news. He said he would call back later with additional instructions.
The instant he hung up, Shelby called the police. More specifically, she called Lieutenant Robert Dunston, head of the homicide unit of the St. Paul Police Department.
I was home at the time, finishing up some yard work in the back. Like Bobby Dunston, I was a St. Paul boy, born and bred. Unlike Bobby, I had moved to the suburbs. It had been an accident. I thought I was buying a house in St. Anthony Park, one of the city’s tonier neighborhoods, just a short jog from the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. It wasn’t until after I made an offer that I discovered I was on the wrong side of Hoyt Avenue, that I had inadvertently moved to the suburbs, Falcon Heights to be precise. I shudder every time I think about it.
Still, there were advantages. Lower property taxes, for one. For another, I had a large, sprawling backyard. At the far end of the yard my father had built a pond complete with fountain amid the fir trees. I was wealthy by then—a tip had led me to an enterprising embezzler named Thomas Teachwell, and I quit the force to collect the substantial reward for his capture and the recovery of the loot. I told Dad we could hire men to build the pond. He wouldn’t hear of it. He was that kind of guy. At about the time Dad died, a pair of mallards discovered the pond and took up residence. Soon after, five ducklings appeared. Eventually they all flew south for the winter, yet the following spring a few of them returned and started new nests. They’ve been coming and going ever since. I used to name the ducks, name them after friends, name them after the Dunstons—Bobby, Shelby, Katie, and Victoria—but over time I lost track of who was who.
While I was cutting grass, my neighbor Margot set up a lawn chair on her side of the pond and stretched out, catching the last of the summer’s rays. She was wearing an emerald green one-piece swimsuit that demanded attention. ’Course, Margot dressed in a parka and snow boots would demand attention. She was half a decade older than I was but could pass for ten years younger. Dad had been sweet on her; she was the last woman to kiss him, on the lips, on his deathbed. I had always been grateful to her for that. After I finished with the lawn, I walked a couple of Summit Ales to her chair.
“When do you think the ducks will leave?” she asked.
“What is it? Early September? Probably in a month or so, but with the climate change…”
“Don’t start that again.”
Margot didn’t believe in global warming.
“You look good,” I said.
“True, so true.” She took a sip of beer. “Too bad you never take advantage of it.”
Margot had been pursuing me more or less seriously since I moved in, yet every time I thought how much fun it might be to let her catch me I’d see my father’s face, see “the look” that he had used to keep me in line when I was a kid.
“I’m afraid I’ll just disappoint you like all those husbands of yours,” I said.
She gazed up at me, shielding her eyes from the sun with the flat of her hand.
Neither of us believed that for a moment.
I left her after a few minutes and went into my house. I had just finished cleaning up when Bobby called and in a perfectly calm voice asked me to hurry over to his place. I thought he was inviting me to an early dinner.
The Dunstons lived in the house where Bobby grew up, a large, pre–World War II Colonial with a wraparound porch. He bought it from his parents when they retired to their lake home in Wisconsin. At first, Shelby wanted nothing to do with it. She told Bobby she was perfectly comfortable in the small six-room love nest in Highland Park that they had found just after they had been married. To me she confided that she was afraid that it would never be “her home,” that the Dunstons who grew up there would always think of it as “their home” and her as little more than a caretaker. I thought that was a little over the top, until I learned that during the first few months after she and Bobby took possession, in-laws would come and go pretty much as they pleased, never calling ahead, never bothering to knock. Once Shelby returned from shopping to find her brother-in-law watching her TV, eating a sandwich, and complaining that there was no mustard. A sister-in-law took it upon herself to sort out the garden. This went on even after she forced Bobby to collect all of their keys.
Finally Shelby tore up her mother-in-law’s carpet to reveal the hard-wood floor beneath, ripped down the wood paneling her father-in-law had installed around the fireplace, tossed out all of the furniture, curtains, and drapes that she had inherited, repainted every room, and replaced the deck in back with a brick patio (actually, Bobby and I did that). Suddenly the Dunston clan was complaining that they didn’t recognize the old homestead and over time began referring to it as “Shelby’s Place.” Even so, she still found it necessary to slap the hands of visitors—mine included—who succumbed to an almost primordial urge to look inside her refrigerator.
I knocked on the front door of Shelby’s Place with my right hand. In my left I was holding a bottle of Piesporter; there was a two-liter bottle of orange pop for the girls tucked beneath my elbow. The door opened abruptly. A man I didn’t know stared out at me. His arm was stretched across the opening from the door to the frame, blocking my path. There was a tenseness about him, part enthusiasm, part anxiety, that I’ve seen in guys about to throw a punch in a crowded bar.
“Who are you?” he said.
“I asked first,” I told him.
He kept staring, his muscles set. He began to make me nervous.
“I’m McKenzie,” I said. “I was invited.”
“McKenzie,” a voice called from inside.
The man dropped his arm and stepped back, allowing me to pass into the house. His expression did not change.
I cautiously stepped across the threshold. There was a short corridor that led to the dining room on the right and the living room on the left. Special Agent Brian Wilson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation stood at the end of the corridor. I had done favors for him in the past. If we weren’t friends, we were at least friendly. He had been to my house, but I had never seen him at Bobby’s. Bobby didn’t like to bring work home with him.
“How are you doing, McKenzie?” Wilson said.
“I don’t know, Harry. You tell me.”
A nearly imperceptible smile tugged at Wilson’s lips. I was the only person on the planet who called him Harry. I called him that because he reminded me of the character actor Harry Dean Stanton. He let me get away with it because I had once helped him bring down a gang of international gunrunners.
“It’s bad,” he said.
His words were like a slap in the face.
“How bad?” I said. “Shelby? The girls?”
He gestured with his head. I carefully set the bottles on the floor and followed him deeper into the house. A man was standing directly in front of the fireplace built into the far wall of the living room. He was leaning against the stone mantel with both hands and staring into the pit although there was no fire. He turned toward me as I approached.
“Mr. McKenzie,” he said. “It was good of you to come.” He extended his hand and I shook it. “I’m Special Agent Damian Honsa of the FBI.” He didn’t look like an FBI agent. He looked like a guy who had just broken par at the Midland Hills Country Club and decided to stop off for a few to celebrate. “I’m the case agent,” he added for emphasis.
“Case agent for what? What’s going on?”
I pivoted toward the dining room. Bobby Dunston was sitting at the table with two other men. One of them was the man who met me at the door; he had placed the wine and pop on the buffet behind him. There were four electronic machines on the table. One was a laptop. One was an enhanced radio system. The others were tape recorders. The larger one had several small speakers and was connected to the telephone. The smaller machine was used for playback. Bobby was sitting in front of it. He was wearing a pair of headphones and listening to a tape. The intensity in his eyes—it was like he was trying to melt the tape machine by staring at it. I moved toward him.
Honsa said, “Mr. McKenzie,” to my back, and I shrugged it off.
Bobby caught movement in the corner of his eye and glanced up at me. There was an expression on his face—anger, sorrow, hate, fear… I couldn’t identify the emotion, but I recognized the look. The thing about Bobby, when he’s under a great deal of stress, he becomes extremely economical in both words and action. He never speaks ten words when three will do and never three words if a nod of his head or a hand gesture will suffice. Certainly he never raises his voice or indulges in emotional outbursts. It was as if he were hoarding energy to operate that imposing computer in his head.
He slipped off the headphones.
“I need you to listen to this,” he said. “The voice is disguised, but I know I’ve heard it before.”
“Tell me what’s happening,” I said.
Bobby didn’t answer. Instead, he rewound the tape and yanked the headphone jack out of the machine. He pressed a button, and the machine’s speaker came alive. I heard a phone ringing, and when it stopped ringing I heard Bobby’s voice.
“Yes?” he said.
“Dunston?” The voice had an unnatural, robotlike quality.
“Victoria’s fine, your daughter’s fine, okay? I didn’t hurt her. She keeps struggling against the ropes, and I tell her to quit it. Other than that there’s not a mark on her. I’m telling you so you shouldn’t worry, okay? We’re not sexual deviants or anything like that, okay? As long as you do what you’re told, as long as you don’t call the Feds, the girl’ll be fine.”
I didn’t hear the rest of the tape. There was a noise that blocked it out. I heard it not in my ears but in my head, my heart, my lungs. It hummed through my entire body, a siren then a bell then something else; it changed pitch and tone as it grew louder and louder. It forced me backward until I was hard against the dining room wall. I knocked a Dunston family photograph off its hook, and it slid to the floor between my body and the wall. Harry moved toward me, his arms outstretched like a spotter preparing to catch a gymnast before he falls. Without the wall to lean against, I probably would have fallen.
I didn’t know what to think; didn’t know how to think. Everything became mumbled and jumbled, and for a moment I felt like that guy on TV who locked himself inside a fishbowl for eight days, breathing out of a tube. Sensory deprivation, they call it. I felt disconnected from the world. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, gravity, and heat were lost to me. Even time became distorted. I could have been slumped against the wall for ten seconds or ten minutes.
I had not felt like that before. Not when my parents had died, not when I found dead bodies lying on the floor, not when people were shooting at me. I bent at the waist, my hands on my thighs, and stared at my shoes; my stomach felt hollow. Victoria was mine. I had adopted her the moment I first saw her at Midway Hospital. Bobby was showing her off while Shelby smiled
Bobby’s voice was low and firm. He must have been hanging on by his fingernails, only you wouldn’t have known it to look at him. I had no idea what emotional strength it took for him to keep it together. The least I could do was make an effort.
There are five stages of grief. Somehow I had skipped directly to the fourth stage, depression. I had to get back to stage two—anger. Anger was good. Anger was motivation. You could work with anger.
“We’re going to kill that sonuvabitch,” I said. I glared at all four law enforcement officers in the room. None of them offered an argument.
I grabbed Harry’s forearm and used him as a crutch to straighten up. The nausea was now in my throat. I forced it back down.
“You need to hear the entire tape,” Bobby said.
“Tell me what happened first.”
He did. When he finished it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen any cars parked in front of Bobby’s house when I drove up. Or anyone above the age of fourteen loitering at the park across the street.
“We have someone in the back and two agents in the front watching for anyone who might be watching the house,” Harry assured me. “All the license plates are being checked, including those in the lot at the park. So far our biggest problem has been keeping the St. Paul Police Department away. Everyone wants to help.”
DAVID HOUSEWRIGHT SERIES:
Other author's books:
- First, Kill the LawyersDead Man's MistressMadman on a DrumPractice to DeceiveDarkness, Sing Me a Song--A Holland Taylor MysteryUnidentified Woman #15Stealing the CountessDearly Departed
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