True Believers

A Gregor Demarkian Novel

Gregor Demarkian Novels (Volume 17 of 29)

Jane Haddam

Minotaur Books

True Believers
PART ONE
God is expensive, but he has very good taste.
--SHIRLEY CURRY
ONE
1
For Gregor Demarkian, for most of his life, the inevitable end of a successful criminal investigation did not exist. He had been called into court from time to time to testify to something he had seen or heard or analyzed. When he had been a special agent for the FBI, he had been called to court particularly in kidnapping cases. Later, when he was head of the Behavioral Sciences Unit, he had watched other men go to court in his stead. Behavioral Sciences dealt with serial killers, and they went to court far more often than kidnappers did. Gregor had a theory about that, eventually. It was that murderers were almost always entirely self-absorbed. A kidnapper was after money. When he failed to get it, when his plans went haywire and he found himself in custody, his primary objective was to save his skin. If a decent plea bargain would do that, he would take it. Murderers were different. Somebody who killed in the heat of the moment might be willing to listen to reason when he was arrested and in jail, but the kind of murderer who planned it almost never was. That kind of murderer wanted to star in his own movie, to be the focus and center of attention, to have all the world's cameras trained on him. He wanted people to know how shimmeringly brilliant he had been, even though that knowledge would send him to the electric chair or the gas chamber or, as was more and more often the case now, a hospital gurney with rubber restraints and a lethal injection. Gregor sometimes wondered if they liked it, all the way to the end, the ceremony and solemnness of it. He wasn't sure, because this was the part he didn't know about. His objections to capital punishment were moral and practical. Hehad seen exactly one execution, and he had never been interested in seeing another. He only thought that the old line from Dr. Johnson was not entirely accurate. The prospect of hanging might work wonderfully to concentrate the mind for some people, but for others it only heightened the sense of specialness, of being a chosen instrument, of being the next best thing to God.
Now he padded into the living room and confirmed his suspicion that Bennis was, indeed, asleep on the couch. She had curled up into a ball against the leather, with one of his own robes bunched up under her head for a pillow. The television was on and turned slightly on its stand so that she could face it directly while lying down. The morning news was playing, with another story about the suicide of that young man at St. Anselm's Church. Gregor frowned slightly--it had been over a week; the fuss and fumbling had gone on far too long--and wandered back down the hall to his own bedroom to get dressed. His hair was still wet from his shower. His neck was cold. Outside the big living-room window, the world was mostly dark. Sometimes it seemed to him impossible to figure out what to do in these situations. He almost never knew what to do about Bennis at all. Everything he did do was somehow off--not wrong, exactly, but not really right. He wondered if he ought to be satisfied that, in the mess this had become, she had not started smoking again--but he had a feeling that that had more to do with Bennis's fundamental stubbornness than with him.
Suddenly, on a whim--no, more on a premonition--he went back to the living room to check on her again. He was wearing his boxer shorts and his socks and his shirt and his tie, but the tie was still hanging around his neck like a scarf. He was all too aware of the fact that his big window had no curtain. If Lida Arkmanian happened to come to her window across the street at just this moment, she would catch him in his shorts. The trick was that Lida would not come to her window. She always had her breakfast coffee in her kitchen, which was on the ground floor in the back. Gregor looked at Bennis and hesitated. He had no idea what he had intended to do when he got there. Bennis had not moved. The coffee table she had pulled up next to the couch was littered with debris, but it was the debris of somebody who had stayed up all nightto watch the creature features: a coffee cup still half-full; an open bag of Chee-tos, barely touched; a half dozen crumpled paper napkins that looked as if they had been used to wipe up spills. Bennis looked haggard and half-dead, the way she did most of the time these days, but at least she had gotten out of her clothes and put on an oversize T-shirt. A half dozen times over the past three weeks, Gregor had found her still in her knee socks and clogs. He had been able to tell by the dirt on her soles that she had been out walking again.
The invitation from the state was not on the coffee table. That, Gregor realized, was what he had been looking for. In the beginning, when they had first sat down with Anne Marie's lawyer and he had outlined just how final the situation had become, Bennis had carried that damned invitation with her everywhere, as if she needed it to identify who she was. It hadn't helped that the governor of Pennsylvania had gone on the air three times in ten days to assure the people of Pennsylvania that this time justice would be done. Anne Marie Hannaford might have escaped execution over and over again for the past ten years, but she wouldn't escape it one more time. There were no more appeals left to try, no more avenues left to explore. The only chance she had was an order of clemency from the governor's office, and the governor had no intention of issuing one.
"Do you think she's evil?" Bennis had asked him, one afternoon, out of the blue, when they had been wandering through a department store looking for a bright red scarf to buy Donna Moradanyan Donahue for her birthday.
It had been the oddest scene: the department-store aisles flanked by counters and shelves full of things that all seemed to be made of something metallic in silver or gold; Bennis in her shop-for-something-expensive uniform of Calvin Klein coat and two-and-a-half inch stacked-heel boots; himself trying desperately not to meet the eyes of saleswomen who had nothing to do in a store that was practically empty. Before Bennis spoke, Gregor had been feeling guilty. Now that they were officially a "couple," they were expected to buy their presents together--but didn't that shortchange the people they were buying presents for? Surely Donna deserved a present from each of them, the way she had every year before. At Christmas, Gregor had had to restrain himself from runningout at the last minute and buying another whole set of Christmas presents. If he hadn't been sure that Bennis--already pumped up beyond belief from nicotine deprivation--would have killed him, he would have done it. But things had been better, then. That was before the new date of execution had been set. Anne Marie's lawyers were still in court. It still looked as if there might be a chance.
Bennis was holding a red scarf in her hands. Gregor would have thought it was just what they were looking for, but he could tell from the way she was fingering it that she didn't like it.
"I don't think 'evil' is a very useful word," he said finally. "I think she's dangerous. I don't think she ought to be walking around loose. I think, under the right circumstances, she would probably do it again."
"I want to know if you think she should be dead."
"I never think anybody should be dead," Gregor said. "No, I take that back. There was one person, just one, whom I thought ought to be executed. I'm putting that badly. In that one case, I thought execution was justified. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, whether or not I think she ought to be dead doesn't mean very much."
"Well, it won't change anything, but that wasn't what I was getting at." Bennis bunched the scarf into a ball and threw it back on the display table. Gregor could see the saleswomen watching her. She was such a prime target: obviously rich, and obviously used to it. He wondered if she was even seeing the scarves anymore, of if they had wandered into a more urgent area of her mind, the part where she had to solve the problems of the universe, now, immediately, without excuses. It was a part of the mind that usually atrophied after adolescence, but the withered organ never disappeared. Gregor knew that from experience, too.
They got to another set of shelves and another set of scarves. Bennis seemed to like this set more. She passed up the solid red one to look at one with red-and-grey stripes. She wound it around and around her hands and nodded slightly.
"Pashmina," she said finally. "You don't usually see it in patterns."
"What's pashmina?"
"A kind of cashmere." She handed the scarf to Gregor.
Gregor noticed that the scarf was both softer and longer than the ones he was used to. Then he looked at the price tag: $278.
"Good God," he said.
Bennis took the scarf from him and headed for the nearest counter. Saleswomen probably got commissions on the things they sold. Whoever ended up with Bennis was going to have a very good sales day.
"What I want to know," Bennis said finally, "is what I should think about it. It's not as if we were ever close. I don't think Anne Marie has ever been close to anyone."
"Yes," Gregor said. "That's the point."
"I know. And there's what she did. Which was horrible. Beyond horrible. But I still don't know what I should think about it. Maybe it's because she's my sister, still my sister, you know what I mean. In spite of everything. Even in spite of the fact that we never really liked each other. Maybe I'd feel the same way about the execution of anybody I'd ever known."
"People do, you know. It's almost impossible for a psychologically normal person to kill someone he can see as fully human. That's why, when there's a movement to stop an execution, there's so much time taken to make the convicted murderer seem human. Think about the Karla Faye Tucker case in Texas. It hurt to see her die in the end because she had become real to so many of us. She wasn't a name and a story. She was a person."
Bennis had found a counter. She folded up the scarf and put it down. The saleswoman was there in a blink, gurgling incoherently. Gregor didn't think Bennis heard a word she said.
"There's something else," Bennis told him. "I thought I might as well warn you. The state of Pennsylvania sent invitations to my brothers and to Dickie Van Damm."
"And?"
"Chris is going to come out and stay with Lida. I don't know about the other two. I don't even know where Bobby is. And as for Teddy--" She shrugged.
"I like your brother Chris. I'll be glad to see him."
"Yes, well, the thing is, he may not be the only person you see. I've got it on good authority that Dickie is going to witnessthe execution. That he's going to--be there. In the peanut gallery. Or whatever you call it."
"Ah."
"If he's there, he won't leave us alone. You must know that. We'll see him. He'll come out to Cavanaugh Street. He'll make a nuisance of himself somehow. In person, I suppose I mean. Anyway, that's what I've heard."
"Ah," Gregor said.
The saleswoman was no idiot. She could see that Bennis wanted to talk to Gregor and not listen to her enthuse about the scarf or about the wonders of pashmina. She interrupted only once--to ask if Bennis would like a gift box--and as soon as she had a positive answer went about her work with silent efficiency. The gift box was red and came with a white satin ribbon. Valentine's Day was only a few days away.
"You know," Gregor said, "I don't think you really have to worry about Dickie Van Damm. He's a nuisance and a damned fool, but he's not dangerous to you, or to anybody except when he's driving drunk. And I've heard he doesn't do that anymore."
"He hired a driver."
"There, then."
The saleswoman handed back Bennis's credit card and then handed over the box. Bennis tucked the box under her arm and walked away. Halfway down the aisle to the back door, she stopped.
"It's just that it's going to be such a mess," she said desperately. "It would have been a mess under any circumstances, but you know what he's like. He'll be all over the news. He'll make a celebration of it. The dim-witted little prick."
"Yes," Gregor said--and now, all this time later, he said "yes" again, out loud to the air in his bedroom. Then he tightened the belt around his pants and slipped his feet into the penny loafers Bennis had bought to replace his standard FBI wing tips. It still felt strange to him that he didn't have to bend over to tie his shoes. He still didn't understand why the shoes didn't just fall off his feet, without laces to hold them on.
He went back out to the living room. Bennis was still sleeping. The news was still on. Now it seemed to be about puppy mills, somewhere in Bucks County. Gregor leaned over the coffee table and turned it off.
Bennis coughed in her sleep, and moved. Gregor got the throw blanket from the back of the couch and tossed it over her. He didn't think she had actually slept in a bed since that interview with the lawyer, and she didn't look as if she were about to start sleeping in a bed anytime soon.
Ages ago, when Gregor was just out of the Army and engaged to Elizabeth, he had thought he knew what love was. Surely, when Elizabeth was sick, in those last awful years, he actually had known what it was. He would never have been able to stay with her, and to help her, if he had not loved her. Duty would not have been enough. Even so, this time around and with Bennis, he felt as if he didn't know anything at all. She was such a complicated person. There were so many twists and turns and secrets to her body and her soul. He knew he would have been wrong to think that her life had been easy merely because it had mostly been rich--but he thought that that was what he must have thought, deep down, until very recently. Now he wanted to run the palm of his hand over her cheek, to feel the smoothness of it, to feel the heat. Sometimes it seemed to him as if his love for her reduced itself to these things: the visceral; the physical; the couldn't-be-put-into-words. It surprised him, really. He had never been a primarily physical person, but his response to Bennis was intensely so, and so insistently present that he found himself coming to in stores and on street corners with the smell of her wrapped around him like a cloak.
The throw blanket didn't cover anywhere near as much of her as Gregor would have liked, but there was nothing he could do about it but stretch it smooth in the corners. He did that and then planted a kiss on her forehead. She neither moved nor spoke. He backed away into his front hall and got his coat. They'd been through a lot together over the last however many years, and they would get through this.
Still, Gregor thought, I'd be happier if I wasn't about to be the one responsible for the death of her oldest living sister.
2
It was later, sitting in the Ararat over coffee and eggs, that Gregor realized there was something he could do about whatwas going to happen. He couldn't do anything about the execution itself, about the fact of it or its timing. He couldn't even do anything about Dickie Van Damm, who was supposed to be the grieving widower of Bennis's sister Myra--although he doubted if Dickie could hold a single emotion for the space of ten years, never mind a single thought. His mind flitted back and forth through the scenes at Engine House in the days after Bennis's father had been killed, but he could never make it rest on Dickie Van Damm. Dickie himself was never at rest. He gestured and bopped. He hurried from one end of a room to the other. He talked, nonstop, while pulling at his tie hard enough to strangle himself. He had, Gregor realized with a shock, all the mannerisms that men of his own generation associated with homosexuality--except, of course, that he was not homosexual. The Truman Capote Syndrome, one of Gregor's instructors at Quantico had called it. The memory made the past seem eons away instead of decades. Had they ever thought like that, as a matter of course, without even questioning it? Had there ever been a time when an "enlightened" view of homosexuality was that it wasn't their fault, it was a kind of birth defect they were born with, and people who weren't born with it should be less censuring than kind?
Gregor was sitting in the big window booth, opposite Tibor and Russ Donahue, who was married to Donna Moradanyan. Next to him, Donna's son Tommy was bent over a hot chocolate covered by a mountain of whipped cream. The cup was big enough to be a soup mug, except that it had a handle. Outside, on Cavanaugh Street, the pavements were slick with ice. There was a needle-fine rain falling, the kind that turned to ice in the air.
"So," Russ Donahue was saying, "what I told her was, she should apply to all the places around here, Temple and Penn and that kind of thing, even Bryn Mawr. It wouldn't be that much of a commute. And so she did. And Penn took her right off, early admissions, first thing."
"So," Tibor said. "She will go to Penn."
"Right," Russ said. "And she was ecstatic, at first. But then, right after Christmas, it started to get odd. She's all wound up. She's, uh, decorating. If you know what I mean. You can see what she's done to the front of our house."
Everybody could see what Donna Moradanyan Donahuehad done to the front of the house she shared with Russ and Tommy. It was wrapped in red and white satin ribbons, and had a heart the size of a Volkswagen beetle on its roof.
"She has also decorated the church," Tibor said. "Not inside the church, where it would be a sacrilege, but the front where the sign is. We have now Cupids with arrows pointing to the time of the liturgy on Sunday."
"Now she's going to go decorate your house," Russ said, nodding at Gregor, "just the way she used to do. According to her. I think she's talked to Bennis about it, but I can't, because Donna's the only one who can talk to Bennis these days. I'm all for Bennis's quitting smoking, but you know, Gregor, she's having a really hard time with it."
"She's not having nearly as hard a time with it as I am," Gregor said.
"My mom is going to go to college," Tommy said. "She's already the second smartest person in the world, but now she's going to get a paper that says so so she can show people when they want her to prove it."
"The second smartest?" Russ said. "Who's the smartest, Father Tibor?"
"You."
 
Gregor lifted his coffee cup and waved it at Linda Melajian, who was on the other side of the room trying to placate one of the Very Old Ladies. Gregor thought the Very Old Ladies had to be at least a hundred years old by now. They looked a hundred years old, and every time there was any news about Armenia they seemed to be able to remember events that took place in the seventeenth century. Even the assassination that had happened last fall had brought up memories of other assassinations, and of coups, and of Turks rampaging through the countryside. Gregor thought that what was really going on was a kind of emotional displacement. What they really remembered was the fear, and the sense of living in a landscape of chaos and uncertainity. There was something about the bad emotions of childhood that no adult could ever completely shake. Gregor was the same way about fires. His childhood had been full of fires, back in the days when Cavanaugh Street had been nothing but tenements cut up into meager cramped apartments, and when the people who lived here had had nomoney to speak of and no space to breathe. Even after all these years, Gregor could remember the light of the flames flickering in his window from a fire devouring one of the houses across the street. Three of them had gone up in a single year, when he was seven, and Gregor could still remember himself lying as still as possible in the narrow bed in the room he shared with his older brother, as if any movement of his might attract the fire's attention, might make it leap across the street and begin to destroy his own. Then there would be the sound of sirens and screeching tires. The adults in the rooms around him, his parents, his Aunt Vida and his Uncle Michael, the Velaskians from across the hall, would gather in the Demarkian living room to look out on what was going on. They would talk rapidly, in panicked squeals, and in Armenian, so that the children might not understand. Maybe that was why Gregor had fought so hard against learning the language with any degree of competency. He'd always thought it was because he'd wanted to be a Real American, instead of the hyphenated kind. Across the street, the houses that had burned down all those years ago--and been left as rubble for decades--were now town houses owned by well-heeled women who spent their winters in fur coats. His parents' old apartment was now one of the storerooms above the Ararat. Gregor, waved again. Linda Melajian caught his eye and nodded.
"So," Russ Donahue was saying, again, "that's it. I mean, I thought that when I got married, you know, over time, I'd start to understand her. Not just love her or like her, but really understand her. And instead, she gets more incomprehensible every day."
"Wait till she gets pregnant," Linda Melajian said, pouring coffee into Gregor's mug from her Pyrex pot. She checked everybody else's cup, and everybody else's food, so that she was satisfied that nobody needed anything. Then she marched away.
"I don't think Donna wants to get pregnant just yet," Russ said. "I mean, she does eventually, you know, but I think she wants to finish college first."
Gregor got a clean paper napkin out of the little stack of them Linda had placed in the middle of the table when they first sat down. The Ararat used cloth napkins for lunch and dinner, but for breakfast they used paper. It was a good thing,because Gregor was always trying to find something to write on. He took out his pen--Bennis's pen; she stole his bathrobes, he stole her Bic medium-point pens--and began to draw a diagram that started with the governor's office on top and meandered its way down to the state attorney general and the mayor of Philadelphia. He was just thinking that he had never gotten along with the mayor of Philadelphia--which was rather like saying that Jesse Jackson had never gotten along with Jesse Helms--when he became aware that everybody else at the table had suddenly gone quiet.
"What is it?" he said, looking at his diagram as if it could really tell him something, instead of being the restless doodle it was.
He looked up, and when he did he saw Sister Mary Scholastica standing by their table, wearing what looked like the Count Dracula's cape over her long habit. Her veil was on slightly crooked, as if it had been knocked sideways in the wind. A few strands of hair were coming out of the white-tipped edge of the stiff crown. She was not alone. A small, much younger, much more tentative nun was standing just behind her. Gregor stood up.
"Sister," he said. "Sit down. I haven't seen you in a year. Bennis isn't here. She had a late night last night. I think she's still--"
"I haven't come to see Bennis," Scholastica said. "Oh, I'm sorry. I mean, I do want to see Bennis. I've been wanting to see her for weeks. But now. Now I came to see you. This is Sister Peter Rose."
"Sister," Gregor said.
Sister Peter Rose bobbed and blushed simultaneously.
"Maybe Sister Peter Rose would like to sit down," Scholastica said. "While you and I go somewhere to talk. It really is important. Couldn't we just go and find an empty table--"
They looked around There were half a dozen empty tables in the middle of the room. Sister Scholastica shrugged.
By now, of course, everybody in the room was looking at them. People on Cavanaugh Street had run into Sister Scholastica before, since she and Bennis were friends, but it was still highly unusual for two nuns in only slightly modified habits to show up at the Ararat at quarter after seven in the morning. In fact, Gregor was willing to bet it was unheard of.Linda Melajian had already appeared with two clean coffee cups and the coffee. Sister Peter Rose slid into the place Gregor had just vacated.
"We'll go over there," Gregor told Linda, pointing to a table five feet away. He led Sister Scholastica across the room. "I thought you said it was no longer a rule, that nuns had to travel in twos," he said.
"It's not." Scholastica sat down. "I just didn't like the idea of wandering around in the dark on my own. I'm not used to cities, did you know that? Colchester was as close as I'd ever gotten to one before this, at least to live in, and it was hardly Philadelphia. I've got a problem."
"I had figured out that much."
Linda Melajian was there with the coffee and the cup. She had Gregor's half-full cup with her as well. She put it down before Gregor could analyze how she was managing to juggle all these things at once.
"Cream and sugar?" she asked Scholastica.
"No, thank you," Scholastica said. "I drink it black."
Linda Melajian wandered away.
"Well," Gregor said. "What is it? I can't believe you're in any kind of serious trouble. You're one of the sanest people I've ever known."
"Oh, it's not me exactly," Scholastica said. "It's--do you know I'm living in Philadelphia now? I've meant to call Bennis, but I've been too busy. I came in at the beginning of January to replace the principal at St. Anselm's Parish School."
"St. Anselm's? The place where there was that suicide a couple of weeks ago?"
"It's been nine days," Scholastica said. "Exactly ten days. Today makes ten days. That's the place, yes."
Gregor cocked his head. "Don't tell me it turns out not to have been a suicide? I thought it was witnessed by all kinds of people--"
"Oh, it was. By Peter Rose, for one. And Father Healy. As well as by a whole lot of homeless people who were sleeping in the church. Father Healy lets them sleep in the church. The Cardinal isn't sure that he likes the idea. No. Marty Kelly committed suicide. It isn't about Marty. It's about Bernadette."
"Bernadette?"
"His wife. He brought her dead body to the church. She was a diabetic, one of those ones where the disease seems impossible to control. Anyway, he was at work one day and she went into a diabetic coma at home and died. And he--I don't know all the details, Gregor, it's very complicated. But to make it short, he brought her body to the church. And he went into the sacristy, to the changing room where the priests robe for Mass, I think because he knew that nobody would be in there until right before seven. And he wrote a suicide note. And then he came out and put her body in front of the altar and, well, you know."
"All right." Gregor's coffee was still too hot for him to drink comfortably. Scholastica seemed to be drinking hers without noticing how hot it was. "So, there was his wife, Bernadette. Kelly?"
"Right."
"And?"
Scholastica put her hand up to the crown of her veil and tried to adjust it. With these new veils, there was always a little hair showing at the front, and a stiff half-moon at the crown that was almost like a linen tiara. Scholastica's efforts to put the thing right only made the mess her hair was in even worse. She put her hands down on the table.
"The medical examiner's office is going to have a press conference today and announce the results of the autopsies. The Cardinal has managed to acquire an advance copy of the autopsy report."
"Ah. And?"
"Bernadette Kelly didn't die in a diabetic coma. She died of arsenic. A lot of arsenic. And what's almost more important, it's nearly certain that Marty couldn't have given it to her."
Gregor slapped his hand against the table. "They can't possibly know that. Not unless they can pin this man down with certainty at least for several hours, and even then--"
"They can pin him down with certainty. Look, Gregor, it's not just Bernadette, either. It's--I really can't go into all this now. You have no idea. I talked to Father Healy and Father Healy talked to the Cardinal. The Cardinal wants to know if you'd be willing to come down to his office as soon as you can get there."
"Now?"
"Now. Gregor, please believe me. You have no idea how bad this is. That's why I came instead of the Cardinal calling you. He doesn't even want the chance of somebody finding out in advance that he's consulted you. And under the circumstances, I don't blame him. Will you come?"
"Of course I'll come," Gregor said, and then his eye was caught by Tommy Moradanyan, standing on the book seat at Sister Peter Rose's back in such a way that her veil cascaded over him, hiding him completely.
It wasn't really relevant at the moment, but Gregor disliked the Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia almost as much as he disliked the mayor.
Copyright © 2001 by Orania Papazoglou. Excerpt from Somebody Else's Music © 2002 by Orania Papazoglou.