Absolute Rage (Butch Karp Series #14)by Robert K. Tanenbaum, Nick Sullivan
In Absolute Rage, what's at stake for the incorruptible prosecutor Butch Karp is nothing less than his personal code of honorthe imperative that drives him to protect his family above all else. A fast-rising, blue-collar Teamster with designs in the union presidency has been murdered in the mountains of West Virginia, along with his wife and youngest/i>… See more details below
In Absolute Rage, what's at stake for the incorruptible prosecutor Butch Karp is nothing less than his personal code of honorthe imperative that drives him to protect his family above all else. A fast-rising, blue-collar Teamster with designs in the union presidency has been murdered in the mountains of West Virginia, along with his wife and youngest child. Karp is wary from the start about wading into such a politically dicey situationand his fears are chillingly justified when killers target his own beloved family. Left to negiotiate a path through the deadly maelstrom of big-city corruption, Karp alone must restore justiceand save his family.
Los Angeles Times Absolute Rage [is] a champion.
Read an Excerpt
By Robert K. Tanenbaum
Atria BooksCopyright © 2002 Robert K. Tanenbaum
All right reserved.
Killing people is so easy that the iron laws of supply and demand make it hard to earn a decent living doing it. As a result, murder for hire is almost always a sideline, and the people who engage in it are by and large stupid losers, quickly caught, and quicker still to rat out the idiots who hired them. The very few real professionals in the business are careful never to meet their clients. Instead, they deal through people like Mr. Ballantine. Mr. Ballantine is sitting in the driver's seat of his Mercedes sedan at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Streets at 7 P.M. on a Sunday evening, about the loneliest place you can be on the island of Manhattan. This is the old meatpacking district, deserted at this hour, except for the occasional street person. It's early summer, the sky is the dull color of galvanized metal and seems to reflect the heat of the day down upon the City. Although the river is close by, there is no breath of air. The bits of trash on the street do not stir. Mr. Ballantine has the air-conditioning on high. He is listening to a Frank Sinatra CD. Frank is singing "Fly Me to the Moon."
A white car goes by, brakes at the end of the street, and does a clumsy U-turn. Its driver parks behind the Mercedes and gets out and, as he has been instructed to do, enters the rear seat. Mr. Ballantine does not turn around. His dark eyes meet the watery blue ones of the other in the rearview mirror.
"That's right. Did you bring the money?"
"I can get it. I wanted to discuss the details."
Ballantine allows himself a small sigh and glances at the dashboard clock. He had hoped that this would go smoothly, as he has an appointment downtown, but obviously he was wrong. He studies what he can see of the man in the mirror. A pale disk of face, late forties, running a little to fat. Stiff sandy hair, sideburns somewhat longer than the current fashion in New York, a dark suit jacket with a gold pin of some fraternal order in the lapel, a thick tie with a heavy, mixed pattern. An out-of-towner, a hick. A little cornpone in the voice, too. A Southerner? That would be unusual. Southerners usually did it themselves.
"No, we don't discuss the details," Mr. Ballantine says. "You give me twenty-five now and it gets done and you give me twenty-five again. That's it, end of discussion."
"I don't know. That's a lot of money, you know. Just to hand over to someone you never seen before."
Not Southern; a hillbilly of some kind. Mr. Ballantine is tempted to cut it off right there, tell the hick to get lost, but he has already invested some time and money. He has paid the bartender who picked up the job, and the guy the bartender told, who told him and set up the meeting. He could write that off as overhead, but still...
"Look," says Mr. Ballantine, "you never did this before, am I right?"
"I've done it a lot, which tells you something. That I know what I'm doing. Because, you know, this is illegal."
A short bark of a laugh from the rear seat.
"Right, and I'm still here, on the outside. Also, think about it for a minute: I'm dealing all the time with people who want to get rid of other people, they're not going to sit down for getting ripped off. I wouldn't be in business if I did that. This is the way it has to be. No questions. I don't know you, you don't know me. You don't know who I'm going to get to do the job. He doesn't know you. Me, I'm just a voice on the phone and an envelope full of cash in his post office box as far as he's concerned. Everyone is sealed off from everyone else, you understand? Seal-off is the main thing. That and the professional job, experienced personnel, guaranteed operation, and so forth. Now, I'm not saying there's not cheaper ways to go."
"For example?" said the man in the backseat, his tone avid. Mr. Ballantine checked his mirror. The man's eyes were wide with interest.
"For example, you could find some guys in a bar around where you come from, a couple of tough guys, what d'y'call them, good old boys. And you could give them a couple of grand and they'd go do it for you. Assuming they do it at all and not get drunk and fuck it up, it'd take maybe three, four days before they told someone, or the cops traced something they dropped at the scene back to them, and a couple of hours after that, they'd come and arrest you, because those boys'll give you up quicker than shit. On the other hand, you saved all that money."
"I'm not that stupid, Mr. Ballantine," said the man coldly, after a brief silence.
"We don't know that yet. If you're not stupid, either you're going to forget about the job, kiss and make up with this fella, or you're going to give me twenty-five large in assorted unconsecutive currency. Those are the two nonstupid options. Up to you, Jim. I could care less either way."
"I'll have to think about it," said the man, easing across the seat. "Other people are involved in this."
That would be another mistake, thought Mr. Ballantine, but said nothing as the man walked back to his rental. When the car had disappeared, Mr. Ballantine got out into the heat and snapped off the magnetized fake New York plates and tossed them in the trunk, revealing the authentic Jersey plates underneath. Sealing it off.
The voices of children woke her out of a sun-dazed nap and she sat up in the beach chair, checking first of all to see if Lizzie was there, and of course she was, building her sand castle where the sand got damp. There were two boys, about ten years old, both dark-haired and lean, one in a red Speedo suit and one in baggy cutoffs. They were splashing in the shallows of the Sound, playing with something big and black, a truck-tire inner tube? In the distance was an adult, obscure now in the glare and salt haze. A woman.
Rose allowed herself a moment of annoyance. Crab Point was a private beach, although who it actually belonged to just now was a lawyer's guess. But it had been in her family for generations. She had come here as a child, to the big white house on the beach, and she had brought the boys here when they were babies, and now, after a long hiatus, she had brought Lizzie, and who was this woman to come here as if it were a public park, with her two noisy kids and her Dog. The thing was the size of a calf, black, dripping sea spray and slaver, and it was rushing directly at her and Lizzie. Her belly jumped with fear. She started to get to her feet to get between the monster and her little girl, who was kneeling next to her sand castle, her back to the onrushing dog, oblivious.
There came a piercing double whistle and the dog, now not more than three yards from Rose, spun instantly around like a mechanical toy, throwing a gout of sand as it skidded, and immediately began to race back toward the other woman.
Who waved and called, "Sorreeee!"
Rose experienced a rush of anger, at the woman and that animal, but also at herself, for her appalling cowardice. She had never been frightened of dogs before.
"Can I go in, Mom?" asked Lizzie. "It's boiling." She had her little red tube around her waist.
"Sure, honey, I'll come with you." Rose was afraid of the water, too, afraid of letting the girl go in by herself, although Lizzie had been a good swimmer since the age of five. When had she become a coward? As soon as she asked the question, she knew.
From the water, floating on her back, she watched the other woman spread her blanket and set up her backrest, and, with somewhat more interest, her undressing. She wore a small, blue-striped bikini, although she was rather mature for a bikini -- late thirties, early forties, Rose judged. A terrific, lithe body though, obviously one of those disgusting women who could eat anything and went wiry rather than slack with age. Another reason to dislike her. Rose rolled over and began to swim back and forth on the gentle swell. Maybe she could work off a few pounds before Red got here.
The next day, the woman was there again, with the boys and the dog, although the dog did not repeat its threatening dash. It played with the boys or sat like a basalt sphinx by the woman's side. She waved, and Rose returned a barely polite one. The next three days were the same. They arrived around four and stayed for a couple of hours. The woman rubbed herself with baby oil, but did not apply sunblock, nor was she apparently worried about her children burning up, unlike Rose herself, who was constantly laving her own skin and that of her daughter with Plus 20.
The boys were identical twins. Through her covert observations, Rose learned that the one with the red Speedo was called Zik, and the one in the baggies was Zak. They were oddly different: Zik spent his time making elaborate sand sculptures; Zak spent his chasing shorebirds, and throwing sticks for the dog, and building crude sand castles, which he demolished with thrown clods as soon as built. Eventually he would squash part of his brother's work and there would be a short, noisy brawl.
Rose was glad the woman kept to herself, but she could not help her curiosity. On a trip into Holden, she'd asked Donna Offut at the grocery, who knew everything, and learned that the family was from the City and had bought the old Wingfield farm. The woman raised big dogs and trained them for guard work. There was a husband, too, who worked in New York and came out on the weekends.
The woman was named Ciampi. Apparently she'd made a pile in the market and spent a chunk of it buying and fixing up the derelict place. In all, thought Rose, not the sort of person she particularly wanted to know. The South Shore was, of course, loaded with that type, but up until now the less attractive, less accessible far North Shore had been relatively unscathed by nouveaux hordes. But maybe that was going, too; another little gritty bit of sadness.
On the fifth day, the Ciampi woman arrived without the dog and with only Zik in tow. She waved, and Rose waved back and watched the usual baby oil routine. Rose was again astounded. Had the woman never heard of cancer? And letting that boy run around in this blazing sun was close to child abuse. Had she appeared stark naked, Rose could not have been more shocked. On the contrary, she might even have approved, as long as a reasonable sunscreen had been applied. Rose adjusted her position under the shadow of her beach umbrella to leave no skin subject to the toxic rays. Taking up her Harper's, she read four pages about the horrendous state of agricultural inspection before dozing off.
When she opened her eyes, she found Lizzie and the boy were building a sand castle of prodigious size, not the usual lumpy kid construction, but something far more sophisticated, with sheer, smooth walls pierced by arched gates, buttresses, and high, round towers. The boy was dabbing wet sand onto the structure and talking, weaving a story about the tiny lead figures they were arranging on the walls, a dungeons-and-dragons sort of tale: wizards, warlocks, imprisoned queens, dark riders, heroic elves. Lizzie was chattering along with this, as if she had known the boy for years. Rose listened, fascinated and amazed. It had never happened in her experience that a ten-year-old boy had volunteered to play with a girl of the same age. Then Lizzie became aware of her mother's stare and grew self-conscious enough to break the enchantment. She stood and walked over to Rose's blanket, the boy following.
"We want a drink," said Lizzie, reaching into the insulated bag.
"Drink, please. And offer one to your friend, Elizabeth," said Rose, smiling at the boy, and getting her first close look at him. He was at the very peak of his boyish beauty, and the peak in his case was remarkably high. Dark curls, bisque skin, large black eyes with thick, unforgivable lashes, a cupid-bow mouth, and the germ of what would become a straight Roman nose.
"What do you want, Giancarlo, Coke or Sprite?" asked Lizzie.
"Coke, please," said the boy, and Rose said, "I thought your name was Zik?"
"Oh, that's my baby name. My brother is Isaac or Zak and so I had to be Zik. Parental humor, ho ho. My brother is the only one who still calls me Zik." He lowered his voice and looked grave. "He's profoundly retarded."
Rose's brow twisted in sympathy. "Oh, how awful. I'm sorry."
"Yes, well, we try to cope and all. That's why he's not here today. He had to go to Creedmore for his...you know, his treatments."
Lizzie said, "Their dog killed all their rabbits, Mom."
"Yes," said the boy. "It was a huge mess. He ravaged them. There were bunny parts all over. That's why he's not here either. My mother flogged him with the dog whip and locked him in the cellar. She might shoot him, or sell him to, you know, a dogfight man." He took a long sip from his Coke as they stared. "Boy, I was really thirsty. My Mom never brings anything but beer, but, you know, a couple of beers on a hot day and I get a headache and Zak is uncontrollable and has to be whipped."
"Whipped?" said Rose with a gulp.
"Oh, sure. My mom's quite the flogger. Look!" He half-twisted to show his upper back. Two thin parallel scars ran from his shoulder almost to his spine, pale against the tan. "I overturned a pitcher of martinis and she got out the dog whip on me. She's totally out of control when she gets plastered. I think she feeds us beer to destroy our brain cells. She's really quite sadistic. She used to give my sister sherry in her baby bottle."
"Did it work?" asked Lizzie, openmouthed.
"Partially. My sister speaks forty-eight languages perfectly, but otherwise she's a complete idiot. She sometimes puts her shoes on the wrong foot."
Rose sighed and said tartly, "You know, it's one thing to make up stories and another thing to tell fibs. I'm sure your family would be very unhappy if they heard you talking about them that way."
Giancarlo's response was a smile of such devastating charm that light seemed to leap from his face, and Rose's irritation melted away and she laughed, reflecting in the moment that laughs had been few and far between recently. Lizzie broke into giggles, too. In a moment they were all three roaring like a sitcom laugh track.
"What's the joke?"
Rose looked up and saw that Giancarlo's mother was standing at the edge of their beach blanket, holding a long-neck Schlitz.
"I was being amusing, Mom," said Giancarlo.
"I bet," said Marlene. She nodded to Rose. "Hi, I'm Marlene Ciampi. I'm more or less responsible for this creature." Rose introduced herself and her daughter, who asked, "Did your dog really eat up all the rabbits?"
Marlene gave her son a sharp look. "A rabbit got out and Gog chased it. Gog is not built for chasing rabbits. The rabbit is safe. What other lies did he concoct?"
"He said you flogged him with a dog whip and gave him a scar," said Lizzie.
"That's more of a prediction," said Marlene. "In point of fact, he got those scratches falling on a bale of razor wire he was told more than once not to go near."
"And I assume his brother isn't retarded either," said Rose.
"He is," insisted the boy. "She's in total denial about it."
Marlene went after him with an openhanded roundhouse aimed at the red Speedo, which he easily dodged. He danced away, laughing maniacally. "See! Child abuse! That proves it, Mom."
The children went back to their sand castle, chortling.
"Pull up a beach," said Rose, and Marlene sat. Rose noticed with a distinct shock that the woman was missing several joints of the small fingers of her left hand. Otherwise, she was remarkably beautiful, in a Mediterranean way. "He must be quite a handful," Rose said, "with that imagination. Is his brother the same?"
"Completely different in every respect. You can barely get a word out of him. Gianni, as you see, is an artist." Giancarlo was carving a delicate arch in a thin curtain of sand.
"I don't see how he gets it to stick together," said Rose. "It's marvelous."
"Oh, yes. Sometimes a little too marvelous for daily use. Zak never picks up a crayon. His thing is war, guns, blowing things up, taking things apart, heavy machinery. That's why he skipped the beach today. We're having a backhoe in to rip out and replace a water pipe to the kennels. Watching a backhoe is his idea of paradise."
"He should meet my husband. They'd have a lot to talk about."
"Your husband runs a backhoe?"
"A dragline. Or did. He's with the union now."
"Really? I'm not sure I know what a dragline is."
"It's an excavation machine. The bucket can take a hundred and fifty yards at a bite, three hundred tons or so. The powerhouse is the size of a small office building. They use them in open-pit mining."
"Presumably not on Long Island, though."
Rose laughed. "Oh, no. Robbens County, West Virginia. That's where we're from. Or that's where Ralph is from. I'm from next door. The big white house."
"There's a story there."
"Oh, yes. Oh, yes, indeed."
"I want to hear it. Let me get the beer."
So Marlene dragged her cooler over and they sat under the umbrella and slowly drank and rubbed the icy bottles against neck and forehead, watching the slow, remarkable extension of Giancarlo's sand palace, and talking. Rose talked, rather, and Marlene listened. She seemed good at it, professional even, and Rose was not surprised to learn that she had been a prosecuting attorney in New York and later a private detective.
Marlene, for her part, after offering the minimum personal data, was content to let the other woman ramble on. Rose Heeney was the sort of woman she had never been much interested in, a type she privately called the Cheerleader. She had been exposed to a number at Smith. They had golden hair and blue eyes and were fair and round of limb. They wore kilts and circle pins and had bright, straight teeth. They strolled in laughing gaggles, dated fraternity boys, and married early -- she read their names (invariably triple-barreled) in the alumnae news. And Rose Wickham Heeney was what they became, it seemed. Or not quite. Heeney had not been in the master plan of the Wickhams. They had not envisioned an Irish roughneck dragline operator for their golden girl.
They focused, naturally enough, on the kids. Besides Lizzie, there were two sons, Emmett, twenty, and Daniel, eighteen. The former had gone to Wheeling for a couple of years, then dropped out to work in the pit. Dan was at MIT. Marlene detected regret in her tone, and a pride in the younger that could never be fully expressed lest it hurt the older boy.
"Do you really have a daughter," Rose asked, "or did he make that up, too?"
"No, Lucy's real enough. She's in Boston, too, as a matter of fact, at BC, a freshman."
"Oh, good," Rose said, smiling. "And I assume she doesn't speak forty-eight languages and can put her shoes on right."
"I don't know about the shoes, but she does speak something like that many."
"You're kidding me!"
"No, actually not. She's some kind of language prodigy. Scientists come in from all over the world to study her, and good luck to them. I have not been blessed with normal children. Although, Zak seems normal enough, except for being Gianni's twin. I think he makes a practice of it. So how did you and...?"
"Ralph, but everyone calls him Red."
Marlene glanced at the blaze of copper on Lizzie's head. "I should have guessed. How did you and Red hook up?"
"Oh, you know, my social conscience. After I got out of Vassar I messed around in New York for a year, working for a magazine, which folded, and I guess I was supposed to get a job at another magazine and wait around to get married. I mean that's what Mom did, right? That or be a modern woman and go to professional school like you. But I didn't want to go to professional school, and I wasn't exactly sure I wanted to be a modern woman. The guys I was dating...I mean, they were all right, but you know..."
"Bland, or totally focused on the greasy pole, or...I dated a sculptor with a loft in SoHo for a while, but honestly, all those people...I couldn't take them seriously, the black clothes and that attitude and the constant backbiting about everyone's work. And so I applied to VISTA."
"After the sculptor broke your heart."
Rose laughed longer than necessary and drank some beer. "Yeah, you got me pegged. The Foreign Legion of the white girls. They sent me to Haw Hollow, West Virginia, to help run a craft cooperative. It mainly involved bookkeeping and writing grant applications and arranging child care so the women could quilt and weave. Well, you can imagine it was quite a shock. You don't think people live like that in America anymore. I mean white people."
"Is not the word. The whole county is kept alive by miners' pensions. They won't take any help from the government, you know. Extremely proud, living in these little hamlets up in the hills -- hollers is what they call them. The water's all rotten from the acid drainage. Half the county looks like moonscape from the strip and pit mines. They're supposed to rehab the land, but a lot of them don't -- the coal companies. And they won't just leave and go to the cities for work. They want to stay by their home places." Rose sighed. "And so there I was, a little middle-class girl doing her social obligation, and one night I drove down to McCullensburg -- that's the local metropolis, population twelve thousand, a Mickey D, three gas stations, and a Bi-Lo -- for a meeting of all the various do-good types, and after all the social workers had droned on for a while, this guy steps up to the mike, and he gives this incredible, incredible speech, all about the hard lives of the people, and how bad they'd been treated by the mine companies and the government, and how they deserved dignity. He said the mountain people were the best people in America, how they were the only ones still living the original vision of America. I mean, it was a stem-winder, and you could see he really believed it."
"It sounds like a Pete Seeger concert."
"Oh, right, I was the same way -- nobody's more cynical than an idealist trying to deal with twenty kids and a busted toilet. I guess you had to be there. We gave him a standing ovation. We were in the Methodist church hall and they had coffee afterward and I went up to him and told him how much I liked his speech, and he said something like, talk's cheap, and I said, no, he inspired me, and he gave me this look, I can't explain it, but no one had ever looked at me that way before. Penetrating, like he could peer into the bottom of my gas tank and see it was more or less empty. And he pointed to all the various social-work and church-lady and government types in the room and said, you think I inspired these people? Yeah, to applaud for a minute or two. And then they're going to go back to doing what they've always been doing, taking a middle-class paycheck for helping the poor and downtrodden. They're not going to change. They're not going to put their bodies on the line for something."
Rose paused and took a gulping swallow of beer. Marlene saw that she was flushed, but whether from the beer or the sun or the rush of memory, it was impossible to tell.
"He wasn't just posing either, like a lot of lefties were back then, like college lefties, who you just knew were going to cut off their hair in a few years and go to work for some company, or keep it long and get tenure. He was the real deal. And it was Robbens County, too." She looked at Marlene and saw the incomprehension she expected.
"No, you never heard of it. Neither had I before I got there. They used to call it Red Robbens. The unions against the owners, like it was all through the coal country back around the turn of the century, but in Robbens it was different, and worse. The labor stuff was just overlaid on top of a kind of low-level tribal war that'd been going on there for a hundred years. Some families sided with the owners, some were union, so the violence was particularly bad. For a while there were whole hollers up there with no males over twelve in them. All the men were dead or in prison. They sent in the National Guard for a while, but it didn't stop the killing. The soldiers were afraid to go up into the hills, and there weren't any decent roads to get them up there, either. The area didn't really settle down until the war and the government made sure that the coal kept flowing and made the companies settle with the union. Then they started pit mining and the whole thing collapsed." Rose stopped and laughed nervously. "Oh, God, I'm being a bore, aren't I? You don't want to hear about the industrial history of Robbens County, West Virginia."
Marlene laughed, too. "Since you asked...but I take it there was an attraction. I mean that night."
"Oh, God, yes. I wanted to throw my body into the cause."
"So to speak."
Rose chuckled. "Right, that, too. It's such a cliché, I know -- well-brought-up girl from Long Island meets working stiff. But the work -- he made it seem real, not just theory but real, about really helping suffering people find their dignity. Anyway, that's the story. After my VISTA hitch was over I moved into his place. A trailer. My parents went nuts, of course, but they had to stand for it, given the times, and the fact that in three months I was pregnant with Emmett. At least he's white, as my father charmingly said, more than once." Rose fell silent and looked out past the kids, to the Sound.
"So, is it almost heaven?" Marlene asked lightly.
"West Virginia? Formerly. The parts that aren't scarred, they're really lovely -- blue hills rising out of the mist, the woods full of flowers in the spring. But the damage is awful -- whole mountains reduced to slag. Majestic is less than responsible in reclamation, and they have, let's say, a good deal of influence with the legislature." In response to Marlene's inquiring look Rose added, "Majestic Coal Company. They're practically the only employer, so as you can imagine, there's not much environmental consciousness, except for the Robbens Environmental Coalition. Which is me, and a bunch of high school students and the Presbyterian minister. And" -- here Rose waved her hands and rolled her eyes -- "and, McCullensburg is a little sparse culturally. On the other hand, there's not much money. Union officials are not the best paid, if they're honest, and Red's as honest as they come. I got a little inheritance when I turned thirty, and we bought a crumbling farmhouse and fixed it up. Talk about stories...if you ever want to be truly bored, I'll tell you about the bats, and the hornets in the well house."
"It sounds like a good, if unexpected, life."
"Oh, sure, it was...is, I mean."
She's going to tell me now, Marlene thought, with a certain sinking of the heart. The guy's having an affair, the oldest boy's on drugs, something. Marlene's husband said that Marlene could take a stroll down Grand Street and before she'd gone two blocks, forty-three women in trouble would have leaped from doors and windows into her path. She knew the signs, anyway, a pinched look, the eyes drifting, the speech a little too positive. This one was on a tight rein, kept it in mostly, would probably come to regret this impromptu, overly casual intimacy with a stranger.
But at that moment, the kids came running up with demands to be fed, and consulting Marlene's watch, the women realized what irresponsible sluts they had been, for it was past six, and Lizzie, although slathered with enough sunscreen to render harmless a smallish nuclear device, had developed a burn around the edges of her suit. So they packed up, pulled on shorts and tops, and walked through the dunes to the sandy blacktop road. A red, late-model Dodge pickup was parked on the shoulder.
"We walk from here. We're just down the road," Rose said, pointing.
"Get in," said Marlene. "We'll drop you off."
Rose objected that it wasn't necessary, but Giancarlo had already let the tailgate fall and was helping Lizzie up into the truck bed.
"Let's go for pizza, Mom," he said.
"Another time," said Marlene.
"That means yes," he said to Lizzie, and started to chant, "Pizza pizza pizza," jumping up and down and making the truck rock on its springs.
"I can't imagine what's got into him," said Marlene to Rose with feigned innocence. "He's usually so well-behaved." To her son she said, "What about Zak? He's probably starving, too. And we're all too covered in sand to sit in a restaurant. I want to take a shower and I'm sure Mrs. Heeney does, too." Marlene was demonstrating motherly reasonableness to the civilized Rose Heeney. Had she been alone and had Giancarlo pulled a stunt like this, she would have leaped into the truck bed and tossed him out on his butt, which Giancarlo, being his mother's son, knew very well, and which was the reason he felt free to be as brazen as a pot now.
"We can pick him up," the boy protested. "And we can go to the Harbor Bar and sit at the outside tables. Puleeeze, Mom?"
"Oh, the dear old Harbor Bar!" said Rose. "Oh, let's! As long as you promise to pour me home and not get dangerous drunk yourself and protect my daughter's virtue and mine and leave 15 percent and floss after meals. Puleeeze?"
So they got into the truck and Marlene drove down the peculiarly named Second Avenue, which is what the beach road is called in that part of the North Fork, and turned at the sign that read Wingfield Farm in incised letters touched with flaking gold. It was the same sign Rose recalled, except the picture of the Holstein had been replaced by a laminated photo of a black mastiff, and where it had said Registered Holsteins, it now said:
Guard Dogs Trained in the Kohler Method
They drove past it down a rutted, grass-grown path, through a thick stand of low pines, and into a large yard, shaded by a huge, dark persimmon tree and a row of ragged lilacs. At the head of the yard was a large clapboard house with a brick-colored tin roof and a screened porch. Its white paint was peeling and gray with age. A rambling rose with new flowers grew untidily up one side of the house and onto the roof. Just visible behind the house was the top of a barn, from which came the sound of mad barking. Rose cried, "Oh, it looks just the same! We used to come here for fresh butter and eggs. I haven't been here in years."
Marlene got out and went to the front door. The mastiff Gog was there; he whined and greeted her in the manner of his kind by shoving his wet nose into her crotch and drooling on her foot. She let him slip by her and shouted into the house for her son. Silence. She went through the house into the kitchen, once again reminding herself that she absolutely had to get rid of that flowered linoleum and the pink paint job, and went out the back to the barn. The dogs in their kennels set up a racket, and she calmed them and greeted them by name -- Malo, Jeb, Gringo, all young dogs in training, and Magog, the brood bitch. Magog was lying on her side, looking dazed as five newborns tugged at her teats. "How are you baby?" Marlene asked tenderly, and allowed the animal to lick her hand. "I know just how you feel."
Behind the barn, she saw that the yellow backhoe was still there, although deserted, together with the flatbed truck it had come on. She inspected the trench that ran from the concrete pumphouse halfway to the barn and saw, with dismay, that the project had been stopped by an enormous boulder squatting in its depths like a petrified rhino. She shouted out for Zak and made a perfunctory check of the other buildings -- a long, swaybacked, decayed chicken coop and a dusty greenhouse -- and was not surprised to find them empty of all but the lower forms of life.
Back at the truck, she saw that Gog was on his hind legs at the passenger-side window, trying to get at Rose, who had rolled up the window; her face was nearly obscured by the dog slime on the glass. Marlene called him off and dropped the truck's tailgate. The dog leaped in, amid shrieks from Lizzie and giggles from the boy.
"That dog!" said Rose. She looked a little pale.
"He's perfectly harmless," said Marlene. "Mastiffs produce more saliva than any other living creature, and being naturally generous animals, they like to share it with us drool-deprived organisms."
Rose giggled. "You're something else. I swear, I feel like I've joined the circus today, our little lonely existence transformed. Where's your other boy, by the way?"
"I have no idea, but my guess would be alien abduction."
"You're not worried?"
"Oh, no. They almost always bring them back after they've implanted the spores."
"Seriously? He's undoubtedly with Billy Ireland, my trainer, probably at a hardware store looking at flanges or valves and having the time of his life."
Holden was little more than a half mile from the farm, a wide place on Second comprising a gas station, a grocery and general store, a miniature marina with a boat-livery/bait-'n'-tackle appendage, three motels, one with a coffee shop attached, four houses (summering as bed-and-breakfasts), and the Harbor Bar. Stuck on the narrowest point of the North Fork, Holden offered access to both the Sound and Southold Bay. It looked like old Long Island, the sort of tiny beach town that had long vanished on the South Shore or farther west; people in Holden still pronounced Montauk with the accent on the second syllable.
The Harbor Bar was a low, green-roofed white building with beer signs in the windows, backed right up to the water, with a weathered deck built out on pilings trimming it on one side and at the rear. White tin tables with beer-company umbrellas flying from them were set out on the latter, each accompanied by an odd assortment of chairs.
"'For men must work, and women must weep,'" Rose intoned as they followed the trotting children down the deck, "'and there's little to earn and many to keep, though the harbor bar be moaning.' My dad used to say that whenever we came here. He claimed it referred to the drunks at the bar. God! Maybe they're all still there, still moaning."
The children ran to a table and the women followed. The place was nearly full with an early-dinner crowd, mostly sun-reddened tourists on their way back from Shelter Island or Orient Point. One table, however (its top nearly covered with empty beer bottles), was filled with locals -- two dark, tanned thirtyish men Harbor Bar was a low, green-roofed white building with beer signs in the windows, backed right up to the water, with a weathered deck built out on pilings trimming it on one side and at the rear. White tin tables with beer-company umbrellas flying from them were set out on the latter, each accompanied by an odd assortment of chairs.
"'For men must work, and women must weep,'" Rose intoned as they followed the trotting children down the deck, "'and there's little to earn and many to keep, though the harbor bar be moaning.' My dad used to say that whenever we came here. He claimed it referred to the drunks at the bar. God! Maybe they're all still there, still moaning."
The children ran to a table and the women followed. The place was nearly full with an early-dinner crowd, mostly sun-reddened tourists on their way back from Shelter Island or Orient Point. One table, however (its top nearly covered with empty beer bottles), was filled with locals -- two dark, tanned thirtyish men, one burly and tattooed and balding, the other ponytailed, both in cutoff jeans, muddy work boots, and wife-beater shirts, plus an older man, slim, well-knit, blue-eyed, florid, with a fine dust of graying gold on his head, and next to him, a very dirty little boy with a white hard-hat flopping on his head. The blond man caught sight of their group and nodded, smiling, at Marlene, a deep nod, nearly a bow, but nothing mocking about it. The boy saw her, too, and Marlene was not surprised to see appear on his face an expression far from that which ought to blossom on the face of a lad observing his beloved mom, but something much more like dismay. Marlene ignored him and sat down. The children did the same, immediately grabbing the crayons and starting the paper games thoughtfully provided on the place mats.
"The prodigal son is getting his bag on after a hard day's work," Marlene remarked, and, following Rose's look over at the other tables, added, "The Damico brothers, Gary and Phil, general contractors, and Billy Ireland. I think I'll just leave the four of them alone. They look too crude for the likes of us."
"They would be the Shelley Society in McCullensburg," said Rose.
Marlene picked up a little card stuck to the chrome stand that held packets of sweetener. "Gosh, anchovies and artichokes is the special pizza and they're doing crabcakes, by which I can tell it's Friday." She waved to flag down a waitress. "I'm sorry to say we can't get shit-faced. I have to pick up my husband at eight oh seven."
"I bet he's not crude," said Rose.
"Oh, he has his crude moments. But generally he's the Shelley Society compared to me."
"Your trainer is staring at you. Not necessarily an employee-employer look, if I may say so."
"Yes, well, that's partly why I keep him around," said Marlene. "And he's terrific with the dogs."
Copyright © 2002 by Robert K. Tanenbaum
Excerpted from Absolute Rage by Robert K. Tanenbaum Copyright © 2002 by Robert K. Tanenbaum. Excerpted by permission.
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