Billy Purdue’s knife bit deeper into my cheek, sending a trickle of blood down my face. His body was pressed hard against mine, his elbows pinning my arms to the wall, his legs tensed against mine so I couldn’t go for his groin. His fingers tightened on my neck and I thought:
Billy Purdue. I should have known better . . .
BILLY PURDUE WAS POOR; poor and dangerous with some bitterness and frustration added to spice up the pot. The threat of violence was always imminent with him. It hung around him like a cloud, obscuring his judgment and influencing the actions of others, so that when he stepped into a bar and took a drink, or picked up a pool cue for a game, trouble would inevitably start. Billy Purdue didn’t have to pick fights. Fights picked him.
It acted like a contagion, so that even if Billy himself managed to avoid conflict—he generally didn’t seek it, but when he found it he rarely walked away—five would get you ten that he would have raised the testosterone level in the bar sufficiently to cause someone else to consider starting something. Billy Purdue could have provoked a fight at a conclave of cardinals just by looking into the room. Whatever way you considered it, he was bad news.
So far, he hadn’t killed anybody and nobody had managed to kill him. The longer a situation like that goes on, the more the odds are stacked in favor of a bad end, and Billy Purdue was a bad beginning looking for a worse end. I’d heard people describe him as an accident waiting to happen, but he was more than that. He was a constantly evolving disaster, like the long, slow death of a star. His was an ongoing descent into the maelstrom.
I didn’t know a whole lot about Billy Purdue’s past, not then. I knew that he’d always been in trouble with the law. He had a rap sheet that read like a catalog entry for minor crimes, from disrupting school and petty larceny to DWD, receiving stolen goods, assault, trespassing, disorderly conduct, nonpayment of child support . . . The list went on and on; sometimes, it seemed like half the cops in Maine must have cuffed Billy at some point. He was an adopted child and had been through a succession of foster homes in his youth, each one keeping him for only as long as it took the foster parents to realize that Billy was more trouble than the money from social services was worth. That’s the way some foster parents are: they treat the kids like a cash crop, like livestock or chickens, until they realize that if a chicken acts up you can cut its head off and eat it for Sunday dinner, but the options are more limited in the case of a delinquent child. There was evidence of neglect by many of Billy Purdue’s foster parents, and suspicion of serious physical abuse in at least two cases.
Billy had at last found some kind of home with an old guy and his wife up in the north of the state, a couple that specialized in tough love. The guy had been through about twenty foster kids by the time Billy arrived and, when he got to know Billy a little, maybe he figured that this was one more too many. But he’d tried to straighten Billy out and, for a time, Billy was happy, or as happy as he could ever be. Then he started to drift a little. He moved to Boston and fell in with Tony Celli’s crew, until he stepped on the wrong toes and got parceled back to Maine again, where he met Rita Ferris, seven years his junior, and they married. They had a son together, but Billy was always the real child in the relationship.
He was now thirty-two and built like a bull, the muscles on his arms like huge hams, his hands thick and broad, the fingers almost swollen in their muscularity. He had small pig eyes and uneven teeth, and his breath smelled of malt liquor and sourdough bread. There was dirt under his nails and a raised rash on his neck, the heads white, where he had shaved himself with an old, worn blade.
I was given the opportunity to observe Billy Purdue from close quarters after I failed to put an armlock on him and he pushed me hard against the wall of his silver Airstream trailer, a run-down thirty-footer out by the Scarborough Downs racetrack, that stank of unwashed clothes, rotting food, and stale seed. One of his hands was clasped hard around my neck as he forced me upward, my toes barely touching the floor. The other held the short-bladed knife an inch beneath my left eye. I could feel the blood dripping from my chin.
The armlock probably hadn’t been a good idea. In fact, on the scale of good ideas, it ranked somewhere between voting for Pat Buchanan and invading Russia in the winter. I would have had a better chance of successfully armlocking the trailer itself; even with all of my strength pulling on it, Billy Purdue’s arm had stayed as rigid and immobile as the statue of the poet in Longfellow Square. While my mind was registering just how bad an idea it had been to go for the lock, Billy had pulled me forward and slapped me hard across the head, open palmed, with his enormous right hand, then pushed me up against the side wall of the trailer, his huge forearms holding my arms in place. My head was still ringing from the blow and my ear ached. I thought my eardrum had burst but then the pressure on my neck started to increase and I realized that I might not have to worry about my eardrum for much longer.
The knife twisted in his hand and I felt a fresh burst of pain. The blood was running freely now, dripping from my chin onto the collar of my white shirt. Billy’s face was almost purple with rage and he was breathing heavily through clenched teeth, spittle erupting as he wheezed out.
He was completely focused on squeezing the life from me as
I moved my right hand inside my jacket and felt the cool grip of the Smith & Wesson. I thought I was about to black out when I managed to wrench it free and move my arm enough to stick the muzzle into the soft flesh beneath Billy’s jaw. The red light in his eyes flared briefly and then began to fade. The pressure on my neck eased, the knife slid out of the wound, and I slumped to the floor. My throat ached as I pulled shallow, rattling breaths into my starved lungs. I kept the gun on Billy but he had turned away. Now that his tide of rage had begun to ebb, he seemed unconcerned about the gun, and about me. He took a cigarette from a pack of Marlboros, lit up, then offered the pack to me. I shook my head in refusal until the pain in my ear started raging again. I decided to stop shaking my head.
“Why’d you put the lock on me?” asked Billy in an aggrieved tone. He looked at me and there was genuine hurt in his eyes. “You shouldn’t have put the lock on me.”
The guy was certainly a character. I drew some more breaths, deeper now, and spoke. My voice sounded hoarse and my throat felt as if someone had rubbed grit into it. If Billy had been less of a child, I might have used the butt of the gun on him.
“You said you were going to get a baseball bat and beat the living shit out of me, as I recall,” I said.
“Hey, you were being rude,” he said and the red light seemed to glow again for a brief moment. I still had the gun pointed at him and he still didn’t seem concerned. I wondered if he knew something about the gun that I didn’t. Maybe the stench in the trailer was rotting the bullets as we spoke.
Rude. I was about to shake my head again when I remembered my ear and decided that it might be better, all things considered, to keep my head steady. I had come to visit Billy Purdue as a favor to Rita, now his ex-wife, who lived in a small apartment over on Locust Street in Portland with her two-year-old son, Donald. Rita had been granted her divorce six months before and since then Billy hadn’t paid over a nickel of child support. I knew Rita’s family when I was growing up in Scarborough. Her father had
died in a botched bank raid in Bangor in ’83 and her mother had struggled and failed to keep her family together. One brother was in jail, another was on the run from drug charges, and Rita’s elder sister was living in New York and had cut off all contact with her siblings.
Rita was slim and pretty and blonde but already the raw deal life had dealt her was taking its toll on her looks. Billy Purdue had never hit her or physically abused her, but he was prone to black rages and had destroyed the two apartments in which they had lived during their marriage, setting fire to one after a three-day binge in South Portland. Rita had woken up just in time to get her then one-year-old son out, before hauling Billy’s unconscious body from the apartment and setting off the alarm to evacuate the rest of the building. She filed for divorce the next day.
Now Billy skulked in his bullet-shaped trailer and lived a life that was on nodding terms with poverty. During the winter he did some lumber work, cutting Christmas trees or heading farther north to the timber company forests. The rest of the time he did what he could, which wasn’t a lot. His trailer stood on a patch of land owned by Ronald Straydeer, a Penobscot Indian from Old Town who had settled in Scarborough after returning from Vietnam. Ronald was part of the K-9 corps during the war, leading army patrols down jungle trails with his German shepherd dog Elsa by his side. The dog could smell Vietcong on the wind, Ronald once told me, even found freshwater once when a platoon ran dangerously low. When the Americans pulled out, Elsa was left behind as “surplus equipment” for the South Vietnamese army. Ronald had a picture of her in his wallet, tongue lolling, a pair of dog tags hanging from her collar. He figured the Vietnamese ate her as soon as the Americans left, and he never got himself another dog. Eventually, he got Billy Purdue instead.
Billy knew his ex-wife wanted to move to the West Coast and start a new life and that she needed the money Billy owed her to do that. Billy didn’t want her to go. He still believed that he could salvage their relationship, and a divorce and an order preventing
him from going within one hundred feet of his ex-wife hadn’t altered this belief.
It was about the time that I told Billy Purdue that she wasn’t coming back to him and that he had a legal obligation to pay her the money she was owed that Billy had gone for the baseball bat and things had fallen apart.
“I love her,” he said, puffing on his cigarette and sending twin columns of smoke shooting from his nostrils like the exhalations of a particularly mean-tempered bull. “Who’s gonna look out for her in San Francisco?”
I struggled to my feet and wiped some of the blood from my cheek. The sleeve of my jacket came back damp and stained. It was lucky my jacket was black, although the fact that I considered that lucky said a lot about the kind of day I was having.
“Billy, how can she and Donald survive if you don’t pay her the money the judge told you to pay?” I replied. “How’s she going to get by without that? If you do care about her, then you have to pay her.”
He looked at me and then looked at his feet. His toe shifted on the filthy linoleum.
“Sorry I hurt you, man, but . . .” He reached behind his neck and scratched at his dark, unruly hair. “You gonna go to the cops?”
If I was going to the cops, I wouldn’t tell Billy Purdue. Billy’s regret was about as genuine as Exxon’s when the Valdez went down. Plus, if I went to the cops Billy would be locked up and Rita still wouldn’t get her money. But there was something in his tone when he asked about the cops, something that I should have picked up on but didn’t. His black T-shirt was soaked with sweat, and there was mud caked at the cuffs of his pants. He had so much adrenaline coursing through his system, he made ants look calm. I should have known that Billy wasn’t concerned about the cops because of some assault beef, or unpaid child support. Hindsight: it’s a wonderful thing.
“If you pay the cash, I’ll let it go,” I said.
He shrugged. “I ain’t got much. Ain’t got a thousand dollars.”
you owe nearly two thousand dollars. I think you’re missing the point here.”
Or maybe he wasn’t. The trailer was a dump, he drove a Toyota with holes in the floor, and he made one hundred, maybe one-fifty, each week hauling junk and lumber. If he had two thousand dollars, he’d be someplace else. He’d also be somebody else, because Billy Purdue was never going to have two thousand dollars to his name.
“I got five hundred,” he said eventually, but there was something new in his eyes as he said it, a kind of low cunning.
“Give it to me,” I replied.
Billy didn’t move.
“Billy, if you don’t pay me the cops are going to come and lock you up until you do pay. If you’re locked up, you can’t make any cash to pay anyone and that looks like a vicious circle to me.”
He considered that for a time, then reached beneath the filthy sofa at the end of the trailer and produced a crumpled envelope. He turned his back to me and counted out five hundred-dollar bills, then replaced the envelope. He handed over the cash with a flourish, like a magician producing someone’s wristwatch after a particularly impressive conjuring trick. The bills were brand new, consecutively numbered. From the look of the envelope, they had left a lot of friends behind.
“You go to the cash machine over at Fleet Bank, Billy?” I asked. It seemed unlikely. The only way Billy Purdue would get money from a cash machine was by breaking it out of the wall with a bulldozer.
“You tell her something from me,” he said. “You tell her that maybe there’s more where this came from, understand? You tell her that maybe I ain’t such a loser no more. You hear me?” He smiled a knowing smile, the kind of smile someone really dumb shoots at you when he thinks he knows something that you don’t. I figured that if Billy Purdue knew it, then it wasn’t anything that should concern me. I was wrong.
“I hear you, Billy. Tell me you’re not still doing work for Tony Celli. Tell me that.”
His eyes retained that gleam of dim cunning, but the smile faltered a little. “I don’t know no Tony Celli.”
“Let me refresh your memory. Tall wiseguy out of Boston, calls himself Tony Clean. Started off running whores, now he wants to run the world. He’s into drugs, porn, shylocking, anything there’s a statute against, so his hopes of a good citizen award are currently so low they’re off the scale.” I paused. “You used to work for him, Billy. I’m asking if you still do.”
He twitched his head as if trying to dislodge water from his ears, then looked away. “Y’know, I did stuff, maybe, sometimes, y’know, for Tony. Sure, sure I did. It beat hauling junk. But I ain’t seen Tony in a long time. Long time.”
“You’d better be telling the truth, Billy, or else a lot of people are going to have some harsh words to say to you.”
He didn’t respond and I didn’t push it. As I took the bills from his hand he moved closer to me and I brought the gun up again. His face was an inch from mine, the muzzle of the gun against his chest.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, and I could smell his breath and see the embers of that red glare flickering into life again. The smile was gone now. “She can’t afford no private dick.”
“It’s a favor,” I said. “I knew her family.”
I don’t think he even heard me.
“How’s she gonna pay you?” His head turned to one side as he considered his own question. Then: “You fucking her?”
I held his gaze. “No. Now back off.”
He stayed where he was, then scowled and moved slowly away.
“You better not be,” he said, as I backed out of the trailer and into the dark December night.
The money should have alerted me, of course. There was no way Billy Purdue could have come by it honestly, and maybe I should have pushed him on it, but I was sore and just glad to be getting away from him.
My grandfather, who was himself once a policeman, until he found the tree with the strange fruit far to the north, used to tell a joke that was more than a joke.
A guy tells his buddy that he’s heading off to a card game.
“But it’s crooked,” protests his buddy.
“I know,” says the guy. “But it’s the only game in town.”
That joke, a dead man’s joke, would come back to me in the days that followed, as things began to fall apart. Other things that my grandfather had told me came back to me as well, things that were far from jokes for him, although many had laughed at them. Within seventy-two hours of the deaths of Emily Watts and the men at Prouts Neck, Billy Purdue would be the only game in town, and an old man’s fancies would flame into violent being.
I STOPPED OFF AT the bank at Oak Hill and withdrew two hundred dollars from my account through the automatic teller. The cut beneath my eye had stopped bleeding, but I figured if I tried to clean away the encrusted blood it would start bleeding all over again. I called in to Ron Archer’s office on Forest Avenue, where he saw patients two nights a week, and he put in three stitches.
“What were you doing?” he asked, as he prepared to give me a shot of anesthetic. I was going to ask him not to bother, but I figured he’d just think I was playing up to him. Dr. Archer was fifty, a handsome, distinguished-looking man with fine silver hair and the kind of bedside manner that made lonely women want him to climb into bed beside them and conduct intimate and unnecessary medical examinations.
“Trying to get an eyelash out,” I said.
“Use eyedrops, you’ll find they don’t hurt as much and you’ll still have an eye afterward.”
He cleaned the wound with a swab, then leaned over me with the needle. I winced a little as he delivered the shot.
“That’s the big, brave boy,” he muttered. “If you don’t cry I’ll give you an M&M when it’s all over.”
“I’ll bet you were the talk of med school with your doctor-patient wit.”
“Seriously, what happened?” he asked, as he began to stitch. “Looks
like someone stuck a sharp blade into this and you’ve got some bruising coming up on your neck.”
“I tried to put an armlock on Billy Purdue. It wasn’t a big success.”
“Purdue? The crazy sonofabitch who nearly burned his wife and child to death?” Archer’s eyebrows shot to the top of his forehead like a pair of startled crows. “You must be even more postal than he is.” He began stitching. “You know, as your doctor, I should advise you that if you keep doing things like that you’re likely to need more specialized treatment than I can offer.” He slipped the needle through once more then cut the thread. “Although, given the dumb actions you’re already taking, I imagine you’ll find the transition to senility pretty smooth.”
He stepped back and examined his handiwork proudly. “Wonderful,” he said with a sigh. “A lovely piece of embroidery.”
“If I look in the mirror and find you’ve stitched a little heart on my face, I’ll have to burn your office down.”
He wrapped the used needle carefully and dumped it in a protective container. “Those stitches will dissolve in a few days,” he said. “And don’t play with them. I know what you kids are like.”
I left him laughing to himself and drove to Rita Ferris’s apartment, close by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and the Eastern Cemetery, where the two young fools Burrows and Blythe were buried. They died in an unneccessary naval combat between the American brig Enterprise and the British Boxer, of which they were the respective captains, off Monhegan Island during the War of 1812. They were interred in the Eastern Cemetery after a huge double funeral that paraded through the streets of Portland. Close by them is a marble memorial to Lieutenant Kervin Waters, who was mortally wounded in the same battle and took two agonizing years to die. He was just sixteen when he was injured, and eighteen when he died. I don’t know why I thought of them as I approached Rita Ferris’s apartment. Maybe, after meeting Billy Purdue, I was acutely conscious of young, wasted lives.
I turned into Locust, passing St. Paul’s Anglican on my right and the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop on my left. Rita Ferris’s building was at the end of the street, across from the Kavanagh School. It was a run-down white three-story, with stone steps leading up to a door lined on one side with buzzers and apartment numbers and on the other with a row of unlocked mailboxes.
A black woman with a small girl, probably her daughter, opened the door of the building as I approached and looked at me with suspicion. There are comparatively few black people in Maine: in the early nineties, the state was still 99 percent white. It takes a long time to catch up on that kind of lead, so maybe she was right to be cautious.
I tried to give the woman my best smile to reassure her. “I’m here to see Rita Ferris. She’s expecting me.”
If anything, her features hardened even more. Her profile seemed to have been carved from ebony. “She’s expecting you, then ring the buzzer,” she said, as she closed the door in my face. I sighed and rang the buzzer. Rita Ferris answered, the door clicked, and I headed up the stairs to the apartment.
Through the closed door of Rita’s second-floor apartment, I could hear the sound of Seinfeld on the TV and a child’s soft cough. I knocked twice and the door opened. Rita stood aside to let me in, Donald, dressed in blue rompers, resting on her right hip. Her hair was tied back in a bun and she wore a shapeless blue sweatshirt over blue jeans with black sandals. The sweatshirt was stained with food and child spit. The apartment, small and neat despite the worn furniture, smelled of the child as well.
A woman stood a couple of feet behind Rita. As I watched, she placed a cardboard box filled with diapers, canned food, and some fresh produce on the small couch. A plastic bag filled with secondhand clothes and one or two used children’s toys lay on the floor, and I noticed that Rita was holding some bills in her hand. When she saw me, she blushed bright red, crumpled the cash, and shoved it into the pocket of her denims.
The woman with her looked at me curiously and, I thought,
with hostility. She was probably in her late seventies, with permed silver hair and large brown eyes. She wore a long wool coat that looked expensive, with a silk sweater and tailored cotton pants beneath it. Gold twinkled discreetly at her ears, her wrists, and around her neck.
Rita closed the door behind me and turned to the older woman.
“This is Mr. Parker,” she said. “He’s been talking to Billy for me.” She slipped her hands into the back pockets of her denims and nodded her head shyly to the older woman. “Mr. Parker, this is Cheryl Lansing. She’s a friend.”
I stretched out a hand in greeting. “Pleased to meet you,” I said. After a moment’s hesitation, Cheryl Lansing took my hand. Her grip was surprisingly strong.
“Likewise,” she said.
Rita sighed, and decided to elaborate a little on her introduction. “Cheryl helps us out,” she explained. “With food and clothes and stuff. We couldn’t get by without her.”
Now it was the older woman’s turn to look uncomfortable. She raised a hand in dismissal and said, “Hush, child,” once or twice. Then she pulled her coat tightly around her and kissed Rita lightly on the cheek before turning her attention to Donald. She ruffled his hair, and the toddler smiled.
“I’ll drop in on you again in a week or two,” she said to Rita.
Rita looked a little pained, as if she felt that she was somehow being rude to her guest. “You sure you won’t stay?” she asked.
Cheryl Lansing glanced at me, and smiled. “No, thank you. I have quite a ways to go tonight, and I’m sure you and Mr. Parker have a lot to talk about.”
With that, she nodded a good-bye to me, and left. I watched her as she walked down the stairs: social services, I guessed, maybe even someone from St. Vincent de Paul. After all, they were only across the street. Rita seemed to guess what I was thinking.
“She’s a friend, that’s all,” she said softly. “She knew Billy. She knew what he was like, what he’s still like. Now, she tries to make sure that we’re okay.”
She closed and locked the door, then took a look at my eye. “Did Billy do that?”
“We had a misunderstanding.”
“I’m sorry. I really didn’t think he’d try to hurt you.” There was genuine concern on her face and it made her seem pretty, despite the dark patches beneath her eyes and the frown lines that were working their way across her features like cracks through old plaster.
She sat down and balanced Donald on her knee. He was a large child, with huge blue eyes and a permanent expression of mild curiosity on his face. He smiled at me, raised a finger, then dropped it again and looked at his mother. She smiled down at him and he laughed, then hiccuped.
“Can I get you some coffee?” she asked. “I don’t have any beer, otherwise I’d offer you a drink.”
“It’s okay, I don’t drink. I just came by to give you this.”
I handed her the seven hundred dollars. She looked a little shocked, until Donald tried to take a fifty-dollar bill and stick it in his mouth.
“Uh-uh,” she said, moving the money beyond his reach. “You’re expensive enough to keep as it is.” She peeled away two fifties and offered them to me.
“Please, take it,” she said. “For what happened. Please.”
I folded her hand over the money and pushed it gently back toward her.
“I don’t want it,” I told her. “Like I told you, it’s a favor. I’ve had a talk with Billy. I think he has a little cash right now and maybe he might start coming around to his obligations. If he doesn’t, it may be a matter for the cops.”
She nodded. “He’s not a bad person, Mr. Parker. He’s just confused, and he hurts a lot inside, but he loves Donnie more than anything in the world. I think he’d do just about anything to keep me from taking him away.”
That was what worried me. The red flame in Billy’s eyes flared up a little too easily, and he had enough rage and resentment inside him to keep it burning for a long, long time.
I stood up to leave. On the floor beside my feet I saw one of the toys that Cheryl Lansing had brought with her: a red plastic truck with a yellow hood that squeaked when I picked it up and placed it on a chair. The noise briefly distracted Donald, but then his attention returned to me.
“I’ll drop by next week, see how you are.” I reached out a finger to Donald and he gripped it in his little fist. I was suddenly seized by an image of my own daughter doing the same thing to me and a terrible sadness welled up inside me. Jennifer was dead now. She had died with my wife at the hands of a killer who believed that they were worthless enough to tear apart and display as a warning to others. He was dead as well, hunted to death in Louisiana, but it didn’t make me feel any better. The books don’t balance that way.
I gently removed my finger from Donald’s grip and patted his head. Rita followed me to the door, Donald once again at her hip.
“Mr. Parker . . .” she began.
I stopped at the door.
“Please stay.” With her free hand, she reached out and touched my cheek. “Please. I’m putting Donald to bed now. I got no other way to thank you.”
I carefully removed her hand and kissed her palm. It smelled of hand cream and Donald.
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” I said.
She looked a little disappointed. “Why not? You don’t think I’m pretty enough?”
I reached out and ran my fingers through her hair, and she leaned her head into my hand.
“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s not that at all.”
She smiled then, a small smile but a smile nonetheless.
“Thank you,” she said and kissed me softly on the cheek. Suddenly Donald, whose face had darkened when I touched his mother, now began to strike at me with his little hand.
“Hey!” said his mother. “Stop that.” But still he struck, until I took my hand away from her.
“He’s very protective of me,” she said. “He thought you were
trying to hurt me.” Donald buried his head in her breast, his thumb in his mouth, and looked out at me with suspicious eyes. Rita stood in the dark hallway as I went down the stairs, framed by the light of the apartment. She lifted Donald’s hand to make him wave good-bye, and I waved back.
It was the last time I saw either of them alive.