MAYBE IF I HAD LOVED HER less there would have been no murder. Maybe if there had just been less devotion in the love. Plenty of men have happy marriages. Affection, partnership, earnest conversations, shared pursuits. If they begin with any blinding passion it fades in time. Their minds get sharp again. Maybe if I hadn't adored her so I would've seen more clearly. Maybe if I had seen more clearly no one would have died.
SO I GUESS THIS IS a confession of sorts. Which is something I know a little bit about. I've spent most of my adult life listening to confessions and I can tell you something--I mean you whom I imagine reading this--I can warn you right at the start. A man who confesses may swagger for awhile. He may come at the truth at an angle, try to dress it up to preserve his dignity. But in the end he'll give you the worst of himself. He has no choice. Guilt and solitude are driving him on. They've got him in a gonad-lock, tighter and tighter, until finally he's beyond even the civilizing influence of hypocrisy--it's no good to him, like money to a dying man. You hang around long enough and he'll tell you everything, done or dreamed. Never mind the big vices, the romantic ones, the ones he's secretly proud of. He'll saddle you with the whole scurvy little human enterprise, take you right up the asshole of his drooling fantasies, hit you with every sniveling, poisonous dream of envy and malice in his weak and unfaithful heart. Which, if nothing else, believe me, can make him an awkward sort of narrator to listen to. Because like any narrator, he wants your sympathy. He wants you to identify with him. He wants you to acknowledge that he's not all that different from you.
SO THAT'S ONE THING. And then there's me personally--because I'm no one's idea of a hero anyway. Physically, to begin with, I'm on the short side, narrow, soft. With a bland face under thinning darkish hair. My eyes are dull brown, baggy even at the best of times. They make me look olderthan my forty-two years, make me look more serious too--and a hell of a lot wiser--than I am. I'm not particularly strong. I've never been fast or agile. I've never been any good with women at all. My virtues, if I can call them that, are of the sort generally considered suspect in the redblooded American male. That is, I'm intelligent and well-educated. I try to be honest. Try to be compassionate with the suffering people who come to me. Having been given so much in life--money, privilege, position--I try to be generous with the less fortunate. What else? I'm faithful to my wife. I love my children. I'm a decent enough guy, in other words, but no one's idea of a hero.
All the same, if you want to know what happened I'm the narrator you're stuck with. It's my sin so it's my confession, my story to tell. If it's any consolation I probably know more about the whole business than anyone. Because whatever else I am, I am the man who loved Marie. And I'm the psychiatrist who treated Peter Blue.
PETER BLUE. NINETEEN YEARS OLD. Gentle, dreamy, hard-working, religious. And one Saturday night toward the end of August, he beat up his girlfriend then drove out Oak Ridge Road and set fire to the Trinity Episcopal Church.
The girlfriend, Jenny Wilbur, called the police right after Peter left her house. Her voice, on the 911 tape starts out loud, frantic. Sloppy with tears:
"He'll kill himself! Oh God! We had a fight! He's going to get a gun!"
"Did he threaten you? Did he hit you?" asks SharonCalley, the civilian dispatcher. "Are you hurt--did he hurt you in any way?"
Instantly, Jenny's voice becomes small and sorrowful. "He didn't mean to," she says. "You have to help him. Please. He says he's going to get a gun."
By then, the alarm had sounded at the Recycling Center--the garbage dump--on Fair Street where Peter sometimes worked. The patrolman responding was met at the dump's office by Jason Roberts who ran the place.
Roberts reported that his office had been broken into and his safebox broken open. Sure enough, the only thing missing was his old Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver.
BUT IT WAS HIGHBURY'S POLICE chief, Orrin Hunnicut, who stumbled on Peter himself. I'll pause here to describe Hunnicut. He's worth describing both for his own sake and because he has a major role in the story.
The man was gargantuan, first of all. Had to be six foot four or five at least. He'd played football in college and at sixty-three he still had the build for it. Huge shoulders, massive arms, an aggressive barrel of a chest, an even more aggressive dome of a belly. No neck. His head just sat on top of his giant frame, just plunked there, blocky and solid. The face was somehow fleshy and rock-hard at once. Pallid, pinkish skin on his jowls. Thin lips, small flinty eyes. He wore his hair cut to the nub and upstanding like an angry white fire coming up from his brain.
He was a hard case, is what I mean to say. And recently he'd gotten even harder still. His wife of thirty-five yearshad died that winter. A mild, fretful little creature, she just wasted away. My own wife, as part of her church work, had helped nurse her through the end. And Hunnicut, she said, loved the woman sincerely in his own ham-handed fashion. Since her death, anyway, his face had become even more rock-like than before. And the flinty eyes seemed to have grown even smaller until they were now no more than black points flashing from deep within the pinkish stone.
AND SINCE HIS WIFE'S DEATH--and despite the fact there's not much crime in Highbury--Chief Hunnicut had taken to spending almost all his time at the police department. Which is why he was driving home so late that Saturday, around midnight as it happened. He was tooling his official Blazer slowly over the leafy stretch of Oak Ridge that led to his neighborhood. It was a warm, humid night. A solid cover of clouds across the sky. No stars but a bright patch of black and silver in the southwest where the full moon was hanging hidden. The steeple of Trinity stood against that patch, its belfry and clapboards visible in the outglow. The rest of the church was sunk into the darkness of the surrounding trees so it was easy for Hunnicut to spot the strange rose-colored gleam wavering at the eastern windows.
With a squeal of tires, he brought the Blazer to the curb. One meaty hand hoisted the radio mike to his lips even as he stepped out of the four-by-four.
"This is Chief Hunnicut, get the fire department out to Oak Ridge. We got the goddamned church on fire out here."
As to what happened next, I got some of it from thepolice report, some from Hunnicut himself and some from a hilarious but possibly apocryphal account given to me by the state attorney. The way I heard it was this:
Hunnicut strode thunderously up the front walk to the building. He tried the double doors. No good; they were locked. So--get ready, here comes the exciting part--he hauled off and rammed into them with one prodigious shoulder. A single blow. The doors went flying in. Hunnicut went flying in after them.
Well, I'll tell you, the sight that greeted him would've made a lesser man quail. A pair of banners draped down two of the front columns were burning so that there were towering pillars of flame framing the central aisle. Between them, the immense gold cross on the wall above the altar caught the firelight and blazed scarlet. Thick smoke churned out beneath it, spreading over the pews, rising into the rafters.
For a moment, our chief stood still, hulking just within the threshold, frowning the fire back. Then, from underneath the fiery cross, from within the depths of the smoke, etched now in the heaving darkness, now by the crackling blaze, there emerged the figure of a man. Tall, lean, erect, Peter Blue stepped through the flaming portal. Hunnicut could see the wild expression on his face. He could see the pistol he was clutching in his hand.
"Get away from here!" Peter shouted. He lifted the gun. "Just get the hell away!"
That did it. Hunnicut stomped up the aisle to him. Muscled through the fire. Snatched the revolver out of Peter's grip. Slapped the boy twice--whack, whack--forehand, backhand, across the mouth.
"You pull a piece on me, you little prick?" he shouted as the flames whiplashed around them. "I'll wipe your goddamned ass with it!" He seized Peter by the hair at the back of his head, hoisted him to his tiptoes. Marched him back up the aisle toward the door. "You're under arrest for arson and all kinds of shit, you dumb fuck! The time you get out of jail, everyone you know'll be fucking dead!"
And he hurled Peter pinwheeling from the burning church out into the open air.
HUNNICUT WAS AS GOOD AS his word. The police charged Peter with arson, assault, burglary, larceny, theft of a firearm, threatening a police officer and reckless endangerment. In theory, the kid was looking at more than fifty years in prison that Saturday night.
So the cops booked him. Then they locked him in one of the department holding cells. The plan was to take him to Gloucester Superior Court on Monday for a formal arraignment. Bail would've been set, court dates and so on. Only it didn't work out that way.
Peter had declined to make a phone call but Father Michael Fairfax, the rector of Trinity, had been told of his arrest. The moment he was sure the fire at his church was out, Fairfax hurried over to the department and demanded to see the prisoner. A Highbury officer escorted him into the cell block.
The two of them found Peter there wearing only his underpants and a T-shirt. The nineteen-year-old had taken his sweatpants off. He had climbed up on his cot and tied one leg of them onto the gratework over the high window.Then he had knotted the other leg around his throat. Then he had stepped off the cot.
As the officer and the priest rushed shouting into his cell, Peter twisted in the air, first this way, then that way, strangling slowly.