When Strait at last got into the room, he could feel his ear reaching a critical zone. The tinnitus was so loud the entire right side of his head was hurting. The room was starting a ponderous see-sawing motion, like he was on ship. He dug out the medicine from his backpack. Only two packets remained of the powdered stuff Watanabe had brought back from Japan. Tomorrow morning, first thing, he needed to get to the hospital.
He poured water in a cup and ripped open one of the packets with his teeth and shook the bittersweet powder into his mouth and washed it down. He also for good measure flicked a Dramamine tablet in his mouth and chewed it. He lay down slowly on the bed, feeling relief sigh out from all his bones and muscles.
He hadn’t felt this tired in a long time. His head was throbbing and a burning ache pulsed in his chest from the burn. He looked at the clock and saw it was already past 2:00. He closed his eyes and dropped instantly into a deep sleep.
He was dreaming of the war. (INS more details). The blasts from the XXXX were hammering rhythmically, three or four times, pausing, then starting up again, like someone rapping a fist on wood.
Opening his eyes took a monumental effort. Someone was pounding on the door. He turned on his side to look at the clock. Only 5:15. The sun hadn’t even risen yet.
He shouted, “Go away!”
The pounding continued.
Groaning, he forced himself to his feet, feeling the floor sway precariously as he did it. He made it to the door, saying, ”okay, okay. Hold on.” When he opened it, he found standing in the hallway the last person on Earth he wanted to see. Police chief Kladspell.
August Kladspell was a porcine man who, as though to compensate for a lack of musculature, wore his police uniform too tight (INS Kladspell description). His eyes were small and cruel, sunk deep into his flabby face.
In his Tennessee drawl, he said, “howdy there, Strait.” (Repair: “howdy” is not Apppalacian English)
“You woke me up.”
“Couldn’t be helped.” The chief leaned back and surveyed Strait from head to toe. “Boy, you look like something come out my dog’s brown butt.”
“What do you want?”
“Need you to come down to the station with me.”
Strait tried to shut the door. Kladspell blocked it with his foot.
“That wasn’t an invitation, Strait.”
“Chief, I was assaulted yesterday and got blown up. I have to get some rest.”
“You still need to come in.”
“Got some questions to ask.”
“Let me guess. Duane saw me go into the guest house? I have the right to enter my own home, Goddamnit.”
Kladspell’s piggy eyes squinted. “Don’t know nothing about no guest house. But I’d appreciate it if you not take the name of the Lord in vain.”
The two men paused for a few seconds to glare at each other.
“Can’t you just talk to me here?”
“I got rules to follow.”
“Can’t it wait a few hours?”
“No, it can’t.” Kladspell said firmly. He twisted his lips into a simulation of a warm smile.
“C’mon, James. It won’t take long. After we’re done, I’ll give you a ride back here for your beddy-bye.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
As he drove, Kladspell let Strait sit up front in the police cruiser instead of behind the mesh barrier where arrested criminals sat handcuffed while being transported. The police car had an astringent odor, like one of those harsh spices that come from the middle east. Strait finally concluded that the smell was coming directly from Kladspell’s body. Some kind of weird cologne? Too many sausages?
As Kladspell drove the police cruiser down Logger Road, Strait perceived the first glow of sunlight swelling over the mountains. Except for one semitruck, which trundled by with a steady huff of white exhaust from its big tail pipes and a towering bundle of felled and stripped pine trees strapped down in its bed, the street was empty.
Kladspell drove with his left hand on the steering wheel, the fingers of his right hand drumming on his wide thigh. After a few minutes of silence, he said, “how you been, boy?”
Strait yawned. “Could use some sleep.”
“Sure done got yourself bunged up.” Kladspell said this in a tone that could have passed for sympathy.
“You don’t need to make small talk with me.”
“Just figure we got off on the wrong foot last year. Can’t hurt to try and get on the right foot now.”
“We got off on the wrong foot because of you, remember? Because you and Duane Dumphey bungled the handling of the crime scene in the Jophia Williams case?”
“Now, ain’t no call to rehash things.”
“Kladspell, you want to get back on the right foot? How about you admit all the mistakes you and Duane made. Admit how those mistakes almost got her and five other children killed? Not to mention me?”
Kladspell’s jowls reddened. “Well, how about you admit to breaking every goshdarned law in Creation? I didn’t make you do all them things. Come to town, Mr. FBI American hero, thinking you’re better than us. You got lucky saving them kids. You coulda just as easily got them all killed going up to that cabin by yourself.”
“Oh, Jesus, just go…” Strait had started forward in the passenger seat and was leaning in toward Kladspell. What are you going to do, punch him? He flopped back in the seat.
“Chief, you got me out of bed to ask questions about this explosion at the church. And if you can’t ask those questions until we get to the station, can’t we just drive in silence?”
“Fine and dandy with me,” said the chief. “Don’t matter nohow, ‘cause we’re here.” He snapped the wheel left and turned sharply into the police station parking lot. The whipping of the turning vehicle brought Strait a surge of dizziness and nausea.
The Pine River police department was a sparkling new two-story edifice constructed of white-painted brick and shining glass. Built with a massive infusion of Homeland Security money slotted by the administration to combat the hordes of terrorists and illegal immigration it claimed were pouring across the border, it could have accommodated the work of a hundred officers, but only sixteen were needed in tiny Pine River.
The front glass doors parted with a soothing whoosh and Strait and Kladspell entered the spacious lobby. At the front counter, a handwritten paper sign said “Back in fifteen minutes.” The receptionist, Strait noted with disgust, was out back on one of his frequent cigarette breaks. Lowell Howell was in his late seventies and spent most of his work hours watching the sports channel and taking cigarette breaks.
Chief Kladspell led Strait through a corridor with carpeting so plush and new their footsteps couldn’t be heard. On the walls were displayed professionally-rendered photographs of hunters displaying their kills. At the end of the hall, the chief directed him down a flight of clanging metal stairs and they emerged in another corridor.
The basement was completely different from the first floor. They made their way through a dimly lit corridor, this one uncarpeted and cold and undecorated. It was lit from above only by bare lightbulbs covered with wire caging. To prevent violent suspects from breaking them, Strait supposed. They came to a metal door with a small window, the glass veined with criss-crossing wires to prevent shattering. cut into it and a sign with black letters that read INTERROGATION ROOM.
“Are you interrogating me?” asked Strait.
Kladspell didn’t answer. He took out a large key and inserted it into the lock. He opened the door and stepped to one side and gestured for him to enter.
The room was small with a cement floor and unpainted walls. The furnishing were bleak. A rectangular wooden table topped with a sheet of metal, dented, scratched, and worn grey, riveted into the surface. Four metal chairs, three on one side, one on the other. Interrogators and interrogated. The chairs and tables were bolted to the floor.
Officer Kim was seated on one of the three interrogator chairs..
“Go on and set yourself over there,” said Kladspell, gesturing to a chair across from Kim. As he sat down, she looked at him sheepishly with a smile that seemed forced. Strait detected a bit of moisture in her eyes.
Standing behind Kim and leaning with his back against the wall opposite the door stood a man in a plain blue suit.
“Who’s this guy?” asked Strait.
The man took a step forward and held out his hand. “My name is Prostuda. Vlad Prostuda. FBI.”
Strait stood and shook Prostruda’s hand. The man had what would have been a bone-crushing handshake with other men. He was powerfully built and very tall, maybe only an inch shorter than Strait. He looked to be about thirty, with chalky, freckled skin and hair so short it seemed like his scalp had been lacquered brown. His eyes were such a light shade of hazel they seemed nearly leeched of color entirely, giving them the appearance of steel. His long, narrow nose had something wrong with it. Instead of being straight, it bent sharply to the right, pulling the skin on his left cheek and stretching it taut, and making a deep, bending groove under his left eye. Strait guessed that at some time in the past, he’d gotten his nose very badly broken, and it hadn’t healed properly. Usually the kind of thing plastic surgery would fix, but some guys didn’t care about that.
“I’m surprised to see someone from the bureau here,” said Strait as he shook Prostruda’s hand.
Kladspell put in, “we called the Phoenix field office to get some help from the feds. After our experiences with you, it seemed best to call in someone with some knowhow about this bombing thing. Vlad here is an explosives forensics expert. Got a degree and everything.”
“That so? Where did you study?”
“The program at Syracuse University. You know it?”
Strait nodded. “Okay program, I hear.” The best in the country.
“It was stimulating.”
“So…this bombing’s been designated federal already?”
Prostruda shook his head. “File it under covering our asses at this point, but it might tip up to officially federal soon. Terrorism is now usually a federal crime, and we’d look pretty ridiculous if the locals found evidence of that before we did. Or missed evidence of that.” He looked at Strait meaningfully.
Kladspell said, “what you all think we cut the chit-chat and get down to business?”
Kim cleared her throat.
“Mr. Strait. “Going over the fire scene, we found some things we were hoping you could identify.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Kladspell gestured with his chin to Prostuda, who opened the door on the opposite end of the room and stepped into what looked like a small storage space. A moment later, he came in carrying a tan canvas suitcase. It was spotted with ash and burned in a few places, but the picture of a dove embroidered on the side was still visible.
Strait gaped at it. “Where did you get that?”
“Can you identify it?” asked Kladspell. Prostuda was staring intensely at Strait, studying his responses.
“Yeah, I’d know it anywhere. It’s Jesse’s. She sewed that picture of a dove in herself. But she took it with her to New York. She had it with her when I dropped her off at the airport. How…?”
“James,” said Kim very gently. “We found it in the church.”
“It was blasted through a window, so it wasn’t burned up. It came from the room where we…” She faltered for a moment. “…found the body.”
Strait’s gaze jumped over their faces. “That can’t…” They were all looking back silently at him. Prostuda was observing him with his steel eyes like a scientist would a lab rat. Kladspell had the shade of a smirk on his face.
Strait took a deep breath. “I let Jessie off at the airport in Phoenix. I saw her go into the airport with my own eyes. Wheeling that suitcase. How could it be here?”
“That’s what we want to know,” said Kladspell.
Prostuda said, “when the suitcase was blown outside, it broke open, so the contents were thrown around.” He stepped into the storage area again and came back with a box. He placed it on the table. He pulled out several objects and held them up one at a time before Strait’s face. A clear plastic travel pouch, most of the plastic melted down to crisp black wrinkles but still holding a blue toothbrush that looked exactly like Jessie’s. Burned remnants of an orange sweater. A charred book with the cover still mostly intact: Blue Highways. The book Strait had given Jessie for her birthday. The one she was reading when she left.
“Do you recognize any of these, Mr. Strait?”
Strait’s heart was hammering so hard he almost couldn’t breathe. He was suddenly aware of a coarse, insect buzz in the room. Like an angry hornet had been released.
“I said, do you recognize these objects?”
Strait’s voice came out in a hoarse whisper. “They look like Jessie’s.”
“Pastor Jessie Brightwater, you mean?” asked Prostuda.
“Yes. But…how? I took all of these things to…” When Strait gestured at the terrible objects on the table, his right hand was shaking.
Kladspell said, “Probably best we just cut to the chase. We found some of her remains burned onto a metal chair. Or what was left of the chair. And we found some scraps of burned clothes fried onto the seat of the chair too, and a couple of pieces of chain looped around the pieces of the chair frame.”
Strait found himself focusing his gaze on Kladspell’s throat. The man’s Adam’s apple poked up and moved up and down through the doughy mass of flesh on his neck as he spoke. Strait could reach across the table and with the fingers of his right hand grip that larynx hard, sink his fingers in deep, and rip it out.
To stop these words. To extinguish the glint of satisfaction in the man’s eyes.
“The way we’re figuring it,” continued Kladspell, “whoever done her chained her to the chair first, sprayed her with some kind of accelerant and set her on fire. Then after letting her burn a few minutes, he blew her up.”
The hornet buzz grew much louder, drilling into his right ear, and Strait moved his hands forward toward Kladspell. All at once, his ear was stabbed by an intense pain and the hornet-buzz dug deep into his head. Kladspell’s face began moving slantwise toward the left. The wasp bored even farther into Strait’s ear as the chief’s fat white face snapped sideways to the edge of Strait’s vision and snapped back again, over and over, until the illusion of spinning was created.
All at once Strait needed to vomit. He stood and lurched to the left and dropped like a stone. In mid-fall, something punched him hard on his head and he was gone.