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A couple of days before Arch Killian’s seventy-eighth birthday, he mentioned to his son that he’d outlived all his old friends and no one was left to serve as his pallbearer.
His son said, “Dad, isn’t that the idea?”
“Not when I was young. The idea was to go first and leave a lot of people to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you.”
“You’re just used to me.”
It occurred to Arch too that he was one of the few left who had a personal memory of the original Morse McGrath. The number of those who even remembered a time when the old man was alive was small, and each new harvest of obituaries in The Derrick made him wonder if he was going to keel off his porch some morning and be written up in the almanac like the last passenger pigeon. Or more accurately the last gray bird who had seen one.
He remembered that encounter every morning, when his doctor-mandated three-mile walk took him to the top of Factory Hill. That was the moment the sun struck orange crucifixes off the onion-shaped storage tanks belonging to the McGrath refinery. The play of light, crowned by the eternal flame fluttering atop the two-hundred-foot stack, painted an abstract picture of the man who had built it: fierce and florid, ablaze with a self-faith that at times licked over into fanatic, then in his final years burned there perpetually.
Arch had been twenty-six then, and had worked for Carbon Valley Surveying eighteen months. The job involved searching for buried irons and sighting along ranks of trees with ancient rusted fencing grown into the goitered trunks—in effect, reasserting property lines through archaeology. Most of the boundaries had grown over, with only the odd spent shotgun shell or calcified condom to imply the existence of civilization. He’d been bitten by stray dogs, set aflame by poison ivy, and served a feast to ticks and chiggers whose bite-scars would still be visible as high as his calves half a century later.
He’d never been happier. No straw boss crowded him, his schedule was a polite suggestion only, and his partner was loyal. Lou Pupkin was in awe of the theodolite; therefore he was in awe of Arch, and accepted his measurements like Noah.
It was like being a cowboy. He’d dressed like one, in a floppy hat, flannel shirt, leather-reinforced breeches, and stovepipe boots, and cultivated a Buffalo Bill goatee. Times were gaudy, just after a war, lots of money around, and he’d had no wife to moderate his tastes. Maybe if he had, he wouldn’t have caught the old man’s eye and his life would have been different.
So surveyors were an independent lot. Because they drew up the property lines there was an unspoken understanding that the lines didn’t apply to them. The understanding didn’t include most property owners, some of whose fathers and uncles had been tried and acquitted of burying trespassers on grounds of justifiable homicide. The law had changed its view, but the owners’ sons and nephews hadn’t. It wasn’t unusual in the old days for surveyors to disappear, their remains and equipment showing up a year or two later, after a hard rain and deer hunters got into places no one else ever went. By then it was next to impossible to convict anyone of murder, however heavily suspicion might lie upon the owner of the property where the bones were discovered. Shotguns were as common as Bibles and the pellets weren’t traceable. Arch had taken the advice of veterans and carried a broom-handled Mauser in a flap holster on his hip.
On a thick day late in June, he and Lou Pupkin were in search of the western boundary of the old railroad right-of-way along the river. The city had bought a section to develop a park. The property ran bang up against undeveloped land belonging to McGrath, but it hadn’t been surveyed since before the old courthouse had burned down. The irons had long since returned to corruption and all Arch and Lou had to work from were restored plat maps and petrified stumps where the tree line had stood before clear-cutting.
Most of the way ran through swamp. Lou was afraid of snakes. It took him half an hour to walk two hundred yards, spreading the tall grass in front of him with the stakes and probing old muskrat huts before he’d plant a foot. They started at seven and by noon both men were plastered with black and green muck, lumped all over with mosquito bites, and barely speaking to each other.
Arch, elevating one foot of his tripod with a hunk of bark, heard the motor at the same time Lou saw the car, its pistons ticking crazily like a watch without a balance wheel. He straightened to observe the vehicle approaching across the field bordering the swamp. It was a boxy old touring car with a high center of gravity and a flat windshield that caught the sun in sheets. The body rocked independently of its suspension and the hoop wheels bucked and dipped over the cornstubs and furrows, warping and bouncing back like a car in a cartoon. Any modern vehicle would have stuck or snapped an axle. Any modern driver wouldn’t have attempted the journey except in a half-track.
He’d expected it to stop on the edge of the swamp. It kept coming, dashing water out of the wiggler-infested puddles, until it hung up on a toppled elm, whose tarantula of mossy roots snagged in the undercarriage. The driver tried reverse, then forward. Gears crunched, the ticking of the motor quickened to a clatter and began to shake itself apart. The car stalled. Then damned if the maniac behind the wheel didn’t try to start it again. The starter ground and ground. It grew mushy and then the battery died with a dry rattle. Steam poured as thick as lager from the radiator. The door on the driver’s side popped open and Morse McGrath climbed down and plunged ahead on foot.
He looked taller and thinner than he did in photographs, an animated jackstraw in a black suit and a gray homburg with the brim square across his forehead. He was pale and clean-shaven and although he carried a cane he didn’t lean on it, pumping it instead in one hand like a drive-rod and holding down his hat with the other. Whatever propelled this assembly had simply abandoned one machine for another, smaller and more agile. He hopped over snarls of weed and sank up to his knees in scum, but his line of advance never altered. His deep-set black eyes remained on Arch, fixed like a swooping owl’s on a movement in the grass. It was the unbreakable stare of a madman. Arch unbuttoned the flap on his holster.
McGrath stopped; not, Arch was sure, because of the defensive gesture, but because the old man had reached the last dry patch before the grassy knob where the survey team stood. A black pool of unknown depth separated them for a distance of fifteen feet.
“You’re on private land.”
He spoke in the sharp nasal twang Arch had heard in newsreels. Brown and ochre mud had turned his black broadcloth into camouflage.
Arch explained they were taking a shortcut through the swamp.
“I don’t want you driving no stakes on my property.”
“We’re not. We’re just trying to get to the other side.”
“Who sent you, kneelers?”
“We’re surveying for the city.”
“Kneelers, the bunch of them. Papists. You’re not passing through, you’re taking measurements. I won’t have Roman idolatry on my own soil.”
Arch admitted he was using the firm ground to line up a reading. The tripod’s feet kept sinking into the earth on the city side.
“You a kneeler?”
He had been raised Catholic. No priest had heard his confession since the army. “With respect, Mr. McGrath, I don’t see it’s any of your business.”
Lou sucked air through his teeth. He held his bundle of stakes on his shoulder like a rifle on parade.
“So you know who I am. Who are you, or ain’t that my business neither?”
Arch told him his name.
“Shanty Irish. You’re one of them, all right. What’s the matter, ashamed to own up to it?”
“You’ve got a right to throw me off your property, Mr. McGrath. You’ve even got the right to ask personal questions. I just don’t have to answer them.”
“I bought the right to throw you off. Hard cash. Your people would call that Mammon, though you didn’t when you squeezed it out of Jews and atheists on the rack. You’re still on my land,” he added.
“We wouldn’t be if you’d stop talking.”
The narrow pale face went deep copper. The cane shot up over his head. “Get out! Get off my land!” He was shrieking. An acre away, a flock of startled grouse took to the sky, their wings jackhammering.
Arch looked away from McGrath for the first time, making eye contact with Lou, whose mouth hung open. Arch jerked his head and folded his tripod.
The old man’s high-pitched shouting ended in a strangled rattle. The sound made Arch turn. McGrath was on the ground, apparently wrestling with himself. He was still holding the cane above his head as if he were standing, but one of his old-fashioned high-topped shoes kicked its heel on the edge of the brackish pool, splattering lichen-stained water as far as his vest. His face was magenta and he was still making the strangling noise.
“Jesus God, he’s rabid.” Lou crossed himself.
Arch dropped the tripod from his shoulder and plunged into the water. It was thigh deep and cold as iron. His feet sank in the muck bottom and kept sinking. He pitched forward, using his weight and momentum to free them, one at a time, then sank again and had to start over. Finally he got a sole on solid earth, grasped a clump of razor grass near the base, and hauled himself onto dry ground. McGrath was at his feet, body twisted into a braid, his knuckles yellow where he gripped the cane. His hat had fallen off. Strands of thin gray hair were pasted like seaweed to his forehead. Only the whites of his eyes showed.
“Don’t let him bite you!” Lou called out.
Arch hesitated. In fact, the old man’s chin was covered with lather. Then Arch unbuckled his leather tool belt and knelt astraddle the thin figure. He gripped him with his thighs and pressed one of the bony shoulders to the ground while with the other hand he grasped McGrath’s jaw between thumb and forefinger. It was clenched hard; the muscles on either side stood out like doorknobs.
At last the teeth came apart a quarter-inch and Arch let go of the shoulder and jerked the wooden-handled screwdriver from its loop on the belt next to the gun holster. He inserted the steel shaft between the two rows of teeth, pressed down McGrath’s tongue with the blade, and with his other hand worked a section of the tool belt into the space until it stuck out on both sides of the jaw. He pulled out the screwdriver then and let it drop to the ground. The tongue tried to retreat, but he grasped the end of the belt and with both hands jammed the edge as far back as the corners of the mouth. He held it there until he was sure the old man wouldn’t spit it out and swallow his tongue. Then he turned and swung one knee back over and sat on his heels. He took off his hat and swept his sleeve across his forehead. He was panting and his shirt was soaked through with sweat, as wet as his pants.
He waited. He didn’t know how long these things lasted. What if the old man died? Was he liable? He was framing his defense when McGrath opened his mouth and took in a long wheezing lungful of air. He coughed. The belt slithered out from between his teeth. His irises were back, murky but sentient. They moved from side to side and fixed on Arch.
“Get . . . off . . . my . . . land.”
Saliva bubbled in his mouth. He turned his head, spat, and struggled up onto his elbows. Arch rose and stuck out his hand. The old man looked at it, then took it. His hand was slimy with sweat and dirt, but his grip was strong. It was like grasping a garden claw. Arch leaned back and McGrath came to his feet. He snatched his hand back then, looked around and found his hat, and bent to scoop it up. He staggered. Arch took a step, but the old man found his balance and slapped the hat against his hip to knock off the dirt. He was still holding the cane. He turned and made his way back toward his touring car, using the cane this time as it was intended. Arch hung back and watched him pick his way through the puddles, growing firmer and straighter with each step.
At the car he paused with one foot on the running board and put on his hat. “Get off my land.”
There was some comedy when the car wouldn’t start and Lou had to wade across and help Arch push it off the elm and then continue pushing, slipping and cursing, until the starter caught. McGrath nearly hung the car up again turning it around, but he punished the gears, rammed down the throttle, and jounced away over the gopher mounds and ruts.
“Well, you’re welcome, you old shit,” Arch said.
Lou said, “Told you he was rabid.”
Arch was living in a rooming house on Boiler Row, a drafty barn with a mansard roof he would recognize years later in Charles Addams cartoons. The woman down the hall gave piano lessons to students who consistently lacked talent, and the Marxist next door saw furry green capitalists at two o’clock in the morning. Ten days after the incident with McGrath, Arch had his first visitor. He was a skinny young roughneck in riding breeches and lace-up boots and a leather aviator’s jacket, a pair of goggles perched atop his tweed cap. The landlady wouldn’t let him inside. His Indian motorcycle farted gray balls of smoke out of its twin pipes next to the curb.
“Mister, I’m supposed to tell you this here’s the twentieth century. If you won’t pop for a phone, at least get a pigeon.” He handed Arch an envelope.
Arch thanked him and shut the door, feeling a burn of shame for not offering a tip. He’d sent his pay home that morning and had just enough left to buy lunch through the week. The neatly typewritten note asked Mr. Killian if he would be kind enough to stop by the McGrath refinery Friday morning at eight. It was signed by James B. Sharp, identified below his signature as Morse McGrath’s personal secretary.
That was the week Arch Killian went to work for McGrath, at a starting salary double what he’d been getting from Carbon Valley. (To the penny; clearly, someone had researched it.) He stayed thirty-nine years and never met Morse McGrath again face to face.
Copyright © 2007 by Loren D. Estleman. All rights reserved.