Read The Captive Condition Online

Authors: Kevin P. Keating

The Captive Condition

ALSO BY KEVIN P. KEATING

The Natural Order of Things

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin P. Keating

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Ltd., Toronto.

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Keating, Kevin P.

The captive condition : a novel / Kevin P. Keating.

pages cm

ISBN
978-0-8041-6928-8 (hardback).
ISBN
978-0-8041-6929-5 (eBook).

1. Drowning victims—Fiction. 2. Murder—Investigation—Fiction.
I
. Title.

PS
3611.
E
24
C
37 2015 813'.6—dc23 2014044280

eBook ISBN 9780804169295

www.pantheonbooks.com

Cover design by Oliver Munday

v4.1

ep

For Katie and Rose

I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

—
EDGAR ALLAN POE,
“The Tell-Tale Heart”

Into the Rural Rust Belt Dystopia

During the quiet hours after midnight on New Year's Day, the ghosts of Normandy Falls, manacled like felons to the tomb, temporarily escaped the totalitarian scrutiny of heaven and the moldering prison house of death, and from the forlorn churchyard near the square and the untilled fields in the valley, they assembled under the light of a spectral moon and resolved to haunt those who had denied them love. They rose high in the blustery air, thin sheets of ectoplasm flapping like mainsails in the lashing wind, a vibration of mournful energy that the living, resting uneasily in their homes after the raucous holiday parties had ended, mistook as the leading edge of a storm drafting down unhindered from the polar ice cap. Like a swirling multitude of madhouse muses, the ghosts with their baleful song inspired me to act that fateful night, and through a maze of monster hemlocks that whispered and hissed in the icy wind, they guided me into the valley and then safely back to town.

Just before daybreak, as the horizon began to pale, I emerged from the woods and plodded across a sloping landscape of false contours. Nothing had distance or scale. The light was flat and gray, and the wind-sculpted crusts and cornices of drifting snow quickly transformed the campus quad into an uninhabitable tundra. I felt perfectly alone and anonymous, like a lost Arctic voyager, but even at that early hour, as I battled my way toward the Department of Plant Services, I saw in one of the cracked and filthy windows a yellow light flickering in the darkness and knew the Gonk was waiting for me.

—

I had been forewarned.

Five years before, on my final day as a student at the Jesuit prep school, I had been summoned to the headmaster's office. Near the imposing set of mahogany double doors, a long line of my fellow freethinkers waited their turn to run the gantlet one more time before donning their caps and gowns and marching in a restless procession to the poorly performed strains of Elgar. Some of us clowned about this penultimate ordeal. It was just a formality, a final gesture, a parting shot, a petty way for some of the more surly Jesuits to denounce our budding apostasy and to express their deep displeasure with our decision to attend colleges and universities with no religious affiliation.

After thirty minutes, when my name was finally called, I entered the office and stood before a desk that looked very presidential and resolute. As every schoolboy knows, the mystery of darkness appeals to old wizards and professional prayer makers, and while my eyes adjusted to the feeble light bleeding through the heavy red drapes, I felt the headmaster's velvety baritone caress my ear and then withdraw into the gloom. A hush fell over the other priests. Seated in a semicircle around his desk, they looked like those chipped and eroded icons in the chapel courtyard, a dozen unsmiling faces set in wet cement, their formal ferraiolos and black cassocks reeking of righteousness, stale cigarette smoke, and musty books of Latin verse. They lacked only a pigeon or two to dance atop their aggressively balding heads.

“Am I to understand, Mr. Campion, that you will be attending Normandy College this fall?”

I tried to sound meek. “Yes, sir, that's correct.”

“Like Jonathan Harker to Dracula's castle.”

I squinted, and after a moment a pair of unblinking yellow eyes came into sharp focus. Behind the enormous desk, shaking his head in astonishment, sat Father James Rhodes Montague, a man with a steel-trap mind. He detested small talk, and from him you would never get a cheerful hello, how are you, what wonderful weather we're having. With gestures so graceful and so routinely performed they seemed almost balletic, he removed a small tobacco pouch from his coat pocket, carefully packed the bowl of his stubby pipe, tamped it down with his thumb, and then brushed the excess flakes from his knee before lighting a match behind a cupped palm. After sending up three puffs of blue smoke, he waved out the flame, crossed his legs, and swept away a single strand of silver hair that looped over his wrinkled forehead.

“Yes, I confess it's a rather cryptic thing to say, Mr. Campion, but in recent years a few of our more defiant graduates have made the trek to Normandy College, and, becoming helplessly lost in the nearby valley, many of them ended up outside the trailer of a deranged methadone addict or at the creaking iron gates of that infamous farmstead Twisted Willows, where, as some of my colleagues here today can attest, a series of hideous crimes took place more than one hundred years ago. All that remains now of its fallen, baronial splendor is a crumbling stone foundation blackened by a devastating fire.”

Father Montague had a peculiar oratory style and a marvelous gift for obfuscation. It probably stemmed from his reading too many nineteenth-century novels written by sexually repressed hysterics and opium eaters. More occultist than scholar, he specialized in and was fanatically dedicated to editing anthologies of obscure tales of terror and the supernatural, stories so predictable that, when read aloud, the florid prose and innumerable clichés sounded almost incantatory: nights were always dark and stormy, wolves were routinely baying under a full moon, and cats were consistently black, plutonic, preternaturally sagacious. In a book edited by J. R. Montague, the world was utterly lacking in proportion, but thanks in part to his meticulous scholarship and prodigious memory, he possessed a rare talent for improvisation, particularly in the presence of a renegade and recalcitrant pupil. Now he wanted badly to tell a new story, something special, and I became the vessel into which he poured another fantastic farrago.

“Father,” I said, “I must confess I'm unfamiliar with the events at Twisted Willows.”

As if sensing my skepticism, he looked pointedly at me and said with a note of reproof, “Gothic tales feed on the
pleasing
elements of horror and romance, but I assure you, Mr. Campion, that there is nothing pleasing about the town of Normandy Falls or its tragic history. It's a matter of public record. If you haven't done so already, you can visit the college's library and read about it. The newspapermen in those days loved sensationalism just as much as they do today, and their reporting does not lack for detail.”

In a final show of my odd, satirical courage I said, “Yes, sir, I'll be sure to delve into the local archives right away.”

The headmaster clamped his teeth on his pipe, chewing back and forth on the already masticated stem. “You want specifics, Mr. Campion. Very well.” He leaned back in his chair and interlaced his fingers over his ever-expanding paunch. “Twisted Willows was the home of the college's founder, Nathaniel Wakefield, an enduring figure of myth and an accomplished botanist posthumously recognized, along with his near contemporary Gregor Mendel, as a pioneer in the emerging science of genetics. He was a human oddity, a remarkable freak, notorious not only for his nervous tics and his off-putting habit of holding imaginary conversations with the exotic plants in his greenhouse, but also for his more unorthodox practices. There was talk that he'd abandoned a wife in some faraway city and had come to the wilderness for the sole purpose of conducting experiments on the unsuspecting townspeople, demanding that they undergo excruciating procedures that left them hideously maimed and scarred. Silly rumors, really. But it would have been much better for all involved if there
had
been some truth to these garbled and exaggerated accounts. Because you see, Mr. Campion, the things that took place inside that house were far more diabolical than anything the gossipmongers could invent.”

Like all-seeing Illuminati, the other priests, either in an attempt to disguise their amusement or express their genuine outrage, cleared their throats, shifted in their seats, and rapped their gnarled ashplants against the polished parquet floor. Some of them, I noticed, drank Belgian beer from frosty snifters and belched softly into palsied fists.

Father Montague continued, “Already steeped in sin, having abandoned the power of scientific inquiry, liberated at last from the irritable necessity of reaching for facts and evidence, Doctor Wakefield fell victim to, shall we say, conjugal mania. To describe his midnight bacchanals as satanic is not an exaggeration, no, not when they involved incest, bestiality, coprophilia. Unwilling to participate any longer in these lascivious
experiments,
the citizens conspired to send strangers passing through town to the doctor's house, tramps and roughneck canal workers mainly, some of whom were never seen or heard from again. Now there were whispers of necrophilia.”

Fighting the temptation to roll my eyes and yawn, I listened to the measured ticking of a grandfather clock as it calmly marked off segments of dry, dusty time. “Forgive me, sir,” I said, “but I don't think any of this proves the existence of vampires or werewolves—or that they attended orgies. Only that a man of science may have exhibited some unusual behavior.”

Father Montague drew in a slow, ragged breath and aimed the pipe stem at my eye. “
Abnormal
behavior, Mr. Campion. And one night a group of men and women gathered in the town square to discuss this
abnormal
behavior. They demanded answers. Who was he, this Wakefield, a man so monstrous, so
human
? Resolving to put a stop to the madness once and for all, they marched into the valley. Hours later, under mysterious circumstances, the doctor's house caught fire aided by a ten-gallon drum of petroleum. The following morning the authorities discovered among the smoldering ruins the unidentifiable remains of a man, a charred, leathery thing no bigger than a dog, its hands clutching its chest. Alas, the doctor had met with a wretched and ignominious end. But there were some who had their doubts and believed the wrong man had died that night, an unsuspecting houseguest, the latest victim of sadomasochistic horrors. The ever-resourceful Wakefield, meanwhile, escaped through an underground passage and fled into the surrounding forest.”

The headmaster waved his hand to dispel the smoke that veiled his parchment-white face.

“Now here's the thing. In addition to his dark legacy, Wakefield sired twelve illegitimate and unbaptized children bearing his name, children of sin, children of the laboratory, genetic aberrations. And to this very day their traits live on in the people like a secret blood disease. Godless men cook poison in their cellars, mothers take their own lives, small children vanish without a trace, marriages slowly crumble and fall apart. It's the apotheosis of failure, a shadowland of rootlessness and poverty.” He leaned forward in his chair and said with a crafty smile, “You would be wise to keep your curiosity in check, Mr. Campion; otherwise, you may find yourself coarsened and brutalized by that direly indigent town. Worse still, you might discover, possibly to your liking, that Normandy Falls is a most beguiling place, especially for a young man who has lost his way in the world and now belongs nowhere else. An outcast of the universe.”

—

Undeterred by the headmaster's heavy-handed warning, I continued preparing for the big move, thrilled to escape the unremitting turmoil of the city, the busy street corners, the deafening roar of traffic, the strangling exhaust of trucks and buses, the eschatological rants of the homeless, the shootings, the muggings, the mayhem of modernity. No less nerve-racking had been the incessant braying of my ambitious peers who, as worshippers of Mammon, extolled the virtues of a high-dollar education and proudly boasted of prestigious grants and scholarships. What I wanted was the simple life, quiet and free of distractions, and in a place like Normandy Falls, deep in the American hinterland, hundreds of miles from the nearest big city, I would finally be free from those snarky overachievers competing madly for entry-level positions on the college newspaper and literary journal.

The move would be therapeutic in a lot of other ways, too. The countryside would offer an abundance of new experiences, and I would watch the summer go out in grand style. Every morning I would breathe a fragrant bouquet of wildflowers, and at sunset I would paint watercolors in vast meadows of sweet, vernal grass. In the fall I would take long walks down tree-lined lanes, pausing on dew-slick cobblestones to search the dazzling foliage for finches and phoebes and pine siskins. In the spring I would brave the frigid waters of the river that ran dark and straight and long and learn how to fly-fish. And in time, just as soon as I was properly licensed to own a firearm, I would join a gun club, spend weekends at the shooting range, participate in marksmen tournaments. In short, Normandy Falls would provide a soothing balm for a brain bombarded by big-city anxieties, and I had an irrational and unwavering faith in its creative potential.

—

On a Friday in early September
2009,
during my first morning at the college, I met briefly with my faculty adviser, Martin Kingsley, a young and immodest professor of comparative literature with a newly minted PhD, but the Jesuits had prepared me well to deal with this particular type of stooge. After our meeting, I attended an obligatory freshman orientation program where the beaming provost, reading from an old set of note cards, told us he was eager to help “kick-start this new academic journey,” but during the rest of his banal speech he said nothing at all about the town and its bizarre history. Prior to my arrival in Normandy Falls, I took Father Montague's advice and looked into newspaper accounts of the college's founder, but I unearthed no evidence of sinister scientific experiments, no allegations of sexual impropriety, no suggestions that he'd dreamed up novel forms of fornication. This made little sense—the headmaster, though a bit eccentric, wasn't a liar—and at lunchtime, while the other freshmen were getting better acquainted in the dining hall, I decided to leave campus and explore the area on my own.

The town was neatly divided in two by a river named in honor of the doctor. More than a century had passed since his demise (or was it his disappearance?), and yet no one had thought to change the Wakefield back to the Wisakatchekwa, its original Iroquois name. Once teeming with smallmouth bass and rainbow trout, the river was now so polluted that people could no longer see their reflections in it. After decades of runoff from a steel mill upstream, the only species that thrived in its sulfurous-smelling waters and contaminated currents were hog suckers and spotfin shiners. The massive trunks of white ashes and weeping willows cantilevered over the broad sweep of river, their exposed roots gripping the crumbling earth like enormous claws.

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