Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “He volunteered this, or you asked him?”

  “He said to come look him up when they let me leave the county, like I could just show up in Chicago or Denver and there he’d be. You gonna arrest me?”

  “Not today.”

  “Thanks, dude,” Andy said, clearly relieved, but then alarmed again because Raymer had allowed his hand to slip back into view. “You know, you might really be a holy man. You got the mark, dude. It’s right there, plain as day.”

  “You think so?”

  “That’s what my mother would say. She’s real religious.”

  “Okay, then I got a message for you.”

  “From who? Like God or something?”

  “Or something,” Raymer said, holding out his stigmata. “Lay off the weed.”

  “Okay, I will,” the kid said. “I mean it, too.”

  Back in the SUV, Dougie said, Are you understanding all this, or do I need to paint you a fucking picture?

  I get it, Raymer told him.

  —

  THE TRAIN STATION IN Schuyler Springs was little more than a brick hut and a concrete platform. The small indoor waiting room was empty. A couple sat on the bench outside, the woman asleep with her head on the man’s shoulder. Four trains a day ran between Albany and Montreal, two north, two south. The first of the Albany-bound trains had departed an hour ago and the next wasn’t until late afternoon.

  Raymer showed his badge at the ticket window. “Nice likeness of you in the paper this morning,” the man said.

  Sensing that Dougie was about to offer a rude rejoinder, Raymer closed his mouth and swallowed hard, which seemed to do the trick. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m looking for a guy who might’ve bought a ticket to Albany this morning. Medium height and build. Wearing a white T-shirt, stretched and yellowing at the collar. Eyes kind of heavy lidded, like he’s half asleep. Probably wearing a backpack, possibly carrying a small box or Styrofoam cooler.”

  “Sorry. Not ringing a bell. You can buy tickets from the machine, though,” he said, pointing at one just inside the door.

  “Does it take cash?”

  The man shook his head. “Plastic only.”

  “Could I get a readout? Names on the credit cards? That sort of thing?”

  “You’d have to call the manufacturer, get them to open it up.”

  Raymer went over the machine, and it looked like some asshole had scratched off the company’s contact info and etched in its place a generic suggestion.

  Think, Dougie said.

  I am thinking, Raymer told him.

  Oh. I’ll wait, then.

  The kid said the guy had a thing about trains.

  And you believe him?

  Why come here if he wasn’t taking a train?

  I wonder, what’s nearby?

  —

  RAYMER PULLED IN TO the bus station just as the coach bound for Montreal was backing out of its bay. The man Raymer was after had told both Harold and Andy about his Albany destination, but…

  Which direction was he heading when he ran over Gaghan?

  North, said Raymer.

  Right. So get moving.

  Crashing through the depot’s double doors, Raymer flashed his badge at a uniformed female employee who, not noticing it and seeing where he was headed and assuming he was late and trying to catch the departing bus, held up both hands and stepped right into him. He heard her grunt at the impact but kept going, having no time to apologize.

  About the last thing the bus driver expected to see was someone darting right in front of him, so he was slow to brake and rocked to a halt inches from Raymer’s knees.

  “Put it in park,” Raymer told him when the door whooshed open, then climbed the three steps, holding out his badge so the driver could see. The bus was surprisingly full, with just a few empty seats. “Don’t open the doors unless I tell you to.”

  To his surprise, the man did exactly what he was told without a fuss, looking at Raymer as you would at somebody you knew better than to fuck with. Had anyone ever reacted to him like that before—respect tinged with fear? Not the sort of response anyone should enjoy, Raymer thought, having already enjoyed it.

  You see him? Dougie wanted to know.

  I sure do.

  Last row, by the window. Next to him was one of the few empty seats, which made Raymer smile. Wherever this guy went, people just naturally gave him a wide berth.

  You positive?

  I just said so.

  “Who’s he talking to?” Raymer heard a woman ask the fellow she was seated next to.

  The bus’s air-conditioning was on full blast, and Raymer noted that the man was now wearing a long-sleeved shirt, though the dingy collar of his T-shirt was visible at the neck. The clerk at the market hadn’t recognized the circular logo on his hat, and neither did Raymer at first, until he looked more closely and saw it was a stylized snake eating its tail. The eyes beneath the bill were as described—sleepy looking, heavy lidded, bored. He was looking out the window—feigning nonchalance?—but Raymer sensed from the cant of his head that he was completely attuned to his approach. Only when Raymer reached his row did the man turn to regard him lazily, a thin, obscene smile playing at his lips.

  Don’t, Dougie advised, but Raymer sat down next to him anyway. “William Smith, I presume?” he heard himself say at the precise moment he understood this to be true. Because here was not just the hit-and-run driver but also the dealer in poisonous reptiles. Miller had glimpsed him when he was staking out the Morrison Arms last night, the van speeding away once the driver saw the crime-scene tape. A better cop would’ve given pursuit and pulled the asshole over, and in so doing probably saved the Gaghan man from being run over a few short minutes later. But Miller would have been no match for the guy sitting next to Raymer, and it would’ve been his body that got dragged into the woods instead of Spinmatics Joe’s. The young woman at Kreuner’s store and old Harold Proxmire had dimly sensed how lucky they were to have stood so close to this man and still be alive. Even when drunk, Boogie Waggengneckt had understood through his alcoholic fog that the roomful of snakes he was babysitting were a stand-in for something far more deadly. The very thing Raymer was suddenly sitting next to.

  Though certain of all this, he knew even better that he wouldn’t unholster and point his weapon. If the gun discharged in the crowded bus, who knew how many innocents would fall?

  William Smith was grinning at him more broadly now. He’d turned so that his back was flush against the side of the bus. The box in his lap had several small holes punched along its top and sides, and Raymer recognized their purpose.

  “Hey, neighbor,” the man said.

  “I’m going to need you to come with me,” Raymer told him. “Quietly, so we don’t scare all these folks. Do you understand?”

  Smith’s smile faded. “Ain’t me that needs to understand,” he said, releasing the metal clasps on both sides of the box.

  “Must be a valuable one,” Raymer said, “if you didn’t want to leave it behind.”

  “Oh, it is,” he said, raising the lid. “This little fella come all the way from Africa just to make your acquaintance.”

  It was, Raymer thought, one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. Sleek black, with bright red and yellow markings, a lovely coil with no end or beginning, at least until it opened its eyes, which seemed as sleepy as those of its owner. Then it raised its head for a better look at Raymer, who would have liked to move but found he could not. It was as if the law governing cause and effect had been temporarily suspended. Though he hadn’t been bitten, the venom was already coursing through his veins, paralyzing him. The good news was that Dougie wasn’t similarly constrained. To Raymer’s astonishment, he said, in his odd, parrotlike croak, “You’re holding an empty box, dumbfuck.”

  Apparently this was not what William Smith expected to hear. In fact, his surprise was so great that his sleepy eyes went damn near wide open, and in them Raymer was able to read his thoughts: Had the
snake somehow escaped? How was that even possible? Leaning forward, he peered over the box’s lid.

  Raymer had no idea a snake could unhinge its jaw so completely or open its mouth so wide. The whole of Smith’s left eyebrow disappeared beneath its triangular head. For what felt like several seconds, it hung there like a brightly colored ribbon, attached to his face, before dropping into his lap. From somewhere behind them came a woman’s piercing scream. Then Dougie reached out with Raymer’s hand, picked up the snake, returned it to the box and secured the lid. Smith was rubbing his eyebrow, which was already ballooning impressively, and looked at Raymer with something like embarrassment. “Fuck,” he said. “I knew better than that.”

  Words to die by, Raymer thought. Or maybe it was Dougie; he couldn’t really tell. At the moment the distinction felt unimportant.

  —

  TWENTY MINUTES LATER, back in the SUV and sitting with his eyes closed, his head back against the seat rest, Raymer could feel the familiar old world gradually reassert itself. On the bus it had seemed as if his heart might leap out of his chest like a movie alien, but his breathing was finally returning to normal. Thanks to the air-conditioning, which he’d set on stun, with all the vents pointing directly at him, the sweat was beginning to dry tight on his forehead and the back of his neck. It would have been nice to close the driver’s door and let the AC really kick in, but that would mean bringing the snake box inside with him. At the moment it sat on the nearby curb where he could keep an eye on it. Now that the snake no longer posed a threat, his dread of it had reasserted itself, and every time the box jiggled, he checked to make sure the metal clasps were securely fastened, that the pissed-off demon hadn’t somehow managed to spring them.

  In the depot things also appeared to be settling down. Several passengers had sustained minor injuries in the panic to rush off the bus, but they were being treated by EMTs. For a time tempers had flared. People seated in front hadn’t seen what happened and were annoyed by the delay. Traumatized folks toward the rear refused to reboard until the bus was thoroughly searched and no other snakes were discovered. Raymer had found the whole scene dispiriting, a tableau of human selfishness, and when two Schuyler cops arrived, he was happy for them to take charge.

  Two ambulances had been summoned. William Smith had been loaded into the first, and it had already departed. No siren, nor any need for one. Raymer had stayed with the man as he convulsed, getting off the bus only when that stopped abruptly, midspasm, and he felt his stomach rise. The second ambulance was for the woman Raymer had steamrolled on the platform. He remembered only jostling her, but witnesses reported that he’d knocked her completely off her feet with what they described as a forearm shiver. Raymer had glimpsed her swollen, dazed face as the gurney was eased into the second ambulance. No sooner had it backed out, siren blaring, than Justin’s animal-control van pulled into the same space. Taking note of the box sitting on the curb, he came over to Raymer’s SUV. “That my snake?” he said, squatting down next to it.

  “Make it so,” Raymer told him.

  Justin checked the clasps, then carried the box to the van, where he put on rubber gloves and grabbed a pair of long-handled tongs before opening it. When the snake curled into a multicolored ball around the metal shafts, Raymer had to look away.

  “Okay, then,” Justin said when he returned. “I’ll go through the coach to make sure there’s not another snake.”

  “There isn’t,” Raymer told him.

  “I know, but it’s the protocol. And it’ll make the passengers feel better. Stick around, all right?”

  Raymer promised he would. At which point he must have dozed off, because he jolted awake when Charice’s voice crackled over the radio. “Chief?” she said, sounding frantic. “You there?”

  Don’t answer, Dougie advised. He’d been silent since they were both on the bus, and Raymer had even dared hope he might be gone, but no such luck. Let her stew.

  “Something just came over the Schuyler police scanner. A disturbance at the bus station? Is that you?”

  Raymer reached for the handset. You do and I’ll bite you myself, Dougie cautioned.

  Oh, please. Raymer’s hand was poised over the receiver. With whose mouth?

  Okay, fine. I can’t literally bite you.

  “They’re reporting Bath’s chief of police is on the scene,” Charice was saying. “There’s been a fatality? Please tell me that’s not you.”

  I really have to take this.

  Wrong. The fact that she wants to talk to you doesn’t necessarily mean you want to talk to her.

  But I do want to talk to her.

  No, let’s be honest. You want to see the tattoo on her ass. For once in your life, play your cards right.

  Raymer saw that Justin was returning. “Is it true?” he said, going back into his crouch. “What somebody told me inside? You picked the snake up with your bare hand and put it back in the box?”

  Dougie chortled at this. Yeah, right. He picked it up.

  Raymer ignored him, preferring to converse with an actual human being. “Not very smart, I admit.”

  “Well,” Justin said, “FYI? What you grabbed was a coral snake. One of the most lethal reptiles in the world.”

  “How come it didn’t bite me right when he opened the box? It had the chance.”

  Justin shrugged. “Educated guess? The box was in the guy’s lap, right? Next to the AC vent? The cold air probably lowered its internal temperature. It took a couple seconds for it to become alert. Otherwise…”

  “Right,” Raymer said, feeling his stomach churn again.

  “You probably don’t care about my opinion, but that was a hell of a job you did on that bus.”

  Dougie snorted.

  “What’ll happen to the snake?”

  “Well, corals are very valuable. Some herpetologist will want it.”

  “Chief?” Charice was on the radio again.

  Justin straightened up. “I’ll let you get back to work.”

  Raymer nodded and picked up the handset. No objection from Dougie this time. “Charice?”

  “Thank God,” she said, sounding genuinely relieved, maybe even a little bit more than relieved, and Raymer smiled. “Are you okay?”

  “Define ‘okay.’ ”

  “Unharmed.”

  “I’m good. The mysterious William Smith, however, is no longer among the living.”

  “The snake dude? You found him?”

  “He was our hit-and-run driver from last night.”

  Her voice became quiet now, almost reverential. “You had to shoot him?”

  “No, he had a snake on the bus, and it bit him.”

  “Who says there’s no justice?”

  When Raymer offered no response, she said, “Chief? Are you going to turn this good thing into a bad thing?”

  “A man died, Charice.”

  “Yeah. A very bad man.”

  “Also, I hurt a woman. She got in my way, and I knocked her down. They just took her away in an ambulance.”

  “But you didn’t mean to.”

  “No, but I’m still a menace. I’m losing what’s left of my mind. There’s a voice in my head telling me what to do.”

  “Don’t listen to it.”

  “Not an option,” he told her, beginning to understand that, like it or not, he was stuck with Dougie. Short of being struck by lightning a second time—and the odds against this were famously long—he had no idea how this alter ego might be banished. “Besides. This voice? It’s smarter than I am. It told me to go to the bus station. And I never would’ve found Gaghan in the woods without its help.”

  “Chief? This voice? If it’s in your head, it’s you. You can’t be smarter than you.”

  “It’s telling me not to trust you, Charice.”

  This seemed to bring her up short. “Me?” she said.

  “Can I trust you, Charice? You’re not in cahoots with Gus, are you? Because—”

  “It’s you I work for, not the d
amn mayor. You.”

  “Tell Jerome if he wants my job, he can have it.”

  “He doesn’t.”

  “Charice?”

  “Yes, Chief?”

  “I’m sorry if I’ve stood in your way. On the job. You’re my best officer. It’s just…I don’t want you to get hurt.”

  “I know. You said already you’re in love with me.”

  “You keep leaving out the maybe,” he told her. Then, looking up, he added, “Uh-oh.”

  “What’s that mean? ‘Uh-oh’?”

  “The News Channel 6 van just pulled in.”

  “Good,” she said. “Go take a bow. You nabbed a criminal. Removed a public menace. Solved two cases.”

  “I’d just say something stupid. I’m not happy until you’re happy. That sort of thing.”

  “Actually?” Charice pointed out. “You said it right that time.”

  “See?” he said, turning the key in the ignition. “Even when I’m right, I’m wrong.”

  “Please tell me you’ll go out to Hilldale. The mayor’s calling every fifteen minutes…”

  After the word “Hilldale” her voice gradually faded into the ambient buzzing in his ears. What he’d been trying to recall earlier, its signal too weak to pull in, was nagging at him again, the connection stronger now.

  “Charice?” he said. “Send Miller out there. To the cemetery. Get the custodian to let him into the maintenance shed.”

  “What for?”

  “Because that’s where our stolen wheel boots are.”

  “And you know this how?”

  “Call it a hunch.”

  The radio was silent for a beat, then, “Chief?”

  “Yeah?”

  “You can’t resign.”

  “Why not?”

  “You’re just getting good.”

  —

  HALFWAY BACK to Bath, stalled at a red light, he felt the buzzing in his ears spike and knew what that meant. And sure enough: Happy now?

  No, Raymer told him.

  You’re grinning.

  How would you know?

  I feel it. I can feel you grinning.

  Okay, maybe I’m a little happy. Would that be okay with you?

  You could thank me.

  What for?

 
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