This tough and bizarre story breaks all the rules. It is not a whodunit, because the killer is already known. It is not a detective story or a sociological treatise on crime, because it is told from the point of view of the criminal.
"Detweiler is one of the most complex characters in modern fiction...the eeriest thing about him is that he is wholly believable, which is to say, of course, that Thomas Berger is a magnificent novelist." (National Review)
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Thomas Berger
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1988 Thomas Berger
All rights reserved.
At about eight-thirty on Christmas Eve the Arthur Baysons were letting themselves into the apartment of Mrs. Andrew Starr and her daughter Wilhelmina, usually called Billie. Betty Bayson, Billie's sister, retained her own key even though she had been married for some time and lived in the suburbs.
Betty called out her habitual threshold greeting as she managed to slide the key from the lock and elbow the door open without unsettling her armload of Christmas gifts. Arthur of course gave her no aid whatsoever, lumbering along behind. He was sometimes innocently inconsiderate.
"Hi!" shouted Betty, already seeing the body of a man lying supine on the floor of the living room, the blood on the carpet, the red-and-cream-striped screwdriver handle in his left temple. Arthur in his awkward way tripped slightly on the corpse's left shoe.
Betty continued for some time to repeat her greeting, which eventually took on the sound of an animal cry, though her expression did not change. She was pale and fine-featured as a child though well into her twenty-third year.
Arthur was more upset by Betty's noises than by the dead man at his feet. He placed his wide white hand on her shoulder, but she tore away and ran through the kitchen-dining room, where the table was set for the Starrs' traditional Christmas Eve supper, through ten feet of dark hallway to the larger of the two bedrooms, and there, switching on the light, she saw the nude body of her sister Billie. Billie lay across the bed in the attitude of a spring twisted in the opposite direction from its natural spiral, a monstrosity of arrested motion and deviated line. From beneath the bed protruded her mother's feet and ankles: Betty knew them from the shoes. She also recognized from them that her mother was dead.
Arthur wandered in, carrying the parcels that Betty had dropped in the hallway. He was resisting the horror with a grimace that in another context might have been a thin smile. Under such control he made no further adjustment at the sight of the new bodies. Still carrying the gifts, which were wrapped in bright green paper and tied with silver ribbon, he returned to the living room, put the packages carefully onto the sofa, and telephoned the law.
Hardly had he put down the instrument when the front doorbell rang. Arthur's brain was now coursing with life: he doubted the police, for all their two-way radios, could move so swiftly, and stepped to the bay window of this ground-floor apartment, from which one could sight a caller on the stoop.
He more than half expected to see the returned murderer as he peered cautiously through the gauze curtains, but instead, in the light of the streetlamp at the curb, recognized his father-in-law, Andrew Starr. Arthur hastened to press the button that opened the outside lock, and stood at the apartment door to receive the older man.
Starr had obviously shaved and otherwise made a supreme effort to be at his best: clean shirt, the collar standing away from his scrawny neck; ancient gray topcoat with antediluvian dirt deep in its fibers but devoid of surface lint; shoes encased in rubbers though the evening was utterly dry. He was a periodic alcoholic and by his drinking had estranged himself from his wife and family. For years Starr had lived alone in a furnished room and saw his family only on the major holidays. He worked as a stock clerk for an auto-parts supplier.
It always depressed Arthur to see Starr; and Starr, for his part, was usually leery of Arthur. Today, however, Arthur looked steadily at his father-in-law as if he were an object of special value, and Starr found himself wondering whether by the end of the evening, after the gifts had been exchanged—in his topcoat pocket, wrapped in tissue, was a combination penknife and nail file for Arthur—whether he might successfully beg a fivespot off him.
"Merry Christmas," said Starr in his voice that had been both weakened and made rough by years of ardent fluids.
"They are all dead," said Arthur. He gently seized Starr's thin arm through the worn sleeve of the topcoat.
Starr showed no understanding of the situation even after he had been led to the bedroom and peered at his elder daughter and wife. Reality spoke little to him unless his veins hummed with drink, and he had not had a mouthful since noon. He was even secretly bitter that he had abstained for the sake of his family and now his sacrifice had been proved nugatory. He returned to the living room and sat on the sofa, still wearing his hat and coat.
Betty stood by the front window, staring quietly across at the lighted windows in the buildings opposite. Arthur, who went to the toilet three times during the ensuing quarter of an hour, wondered at the Starrs' apparent calm, admired them for it. Once as a boy, when his dog had been killed by a truck, he and his mother had wailed interminably; and his father, returning from work, had joined them.
The first police car arrived discreetly, sirens silent and red lights extinguished. However, with the appearance of a second patrol car, wailing and flashing, an anonymous private automobile full of detectives in mufti, and an ambulance, people began to collect in the street and study the uniformed man who had been posted on the stoop.
Inside, Starr was asked his name three times by as many individuals. The first two were patrolmen, and though they made some effort to appear neutral, he was conscious of their great hostility towards him. Policemen always had his number though in all his years of degeneration he had never run afoul of the law. The third questioner was a man of about Starr's own age and even grayer of hair. His eyes were blue-gray and he wore a gray suit with a maroon sweater beneath it. His manner was equable, even tingling on the sympathetic. He sat down alongside Starr on the couch and groaned, as men their age often do when taking the weight off.
Starr liked him but regarded him warily; he was obviously a detective, from his clothes. He was older than the others and therefore probably the boss. Starr thus thought it politic to address him as "inspector."
"Do you know me?" the detective asked, and at Starr's disclaimer, he said: "Then why did you call me 'inspector'?"
Starr was suddenly too terrified to explain his innocent process of reasoning. He had not had a drink in more than nine hours. Chin trembling, he said: "I didn't do it. Look for that boarder."
"Well," said the detective, who was a lieutenant of Homicide named James T. Shuster though he saw no need to admit that to Starr, whom he had immediately assessed as guilty, whether or not of the crime at hand. "Well now, Andy, if you are referring to the man on the floor, as you very well know he is also dead. Was there another boarder? No? Ah then." He patted Starr's shaking shoulder. "Then you mean that after dealing with the persons in the bedroom, he came out here and inserted a deadly weapon into his own head?"
Starr began to cry, but noiselessly, and no one else in the crowded room took notice of him. Betty and Arthur had already talked with the lieutenant, and when after listening briefly he had turned away from them, they continued to relate their stories to a tweed-jacketed young man who Betty could see found her attractive.
Shuster decided to press his advantage with Starr. "This boarder Appleton," he said. "Not a bad-looking devil, was he? Probably had a cup of coffee now and again with your wife, passed the time of day with your daughter." He dug his thumb into the sensitive hollow just below Starr's shoulder cap, not so much to hurt him then and there as to suggest what could be done in the future.
But Starr's psychic wretchedness had rendered him for the moment physically anesthetic. Nor was he moved in the least by Shuster's implications as to his wife and daughter. He naturally assumed his wife had been sleeping with the boarder, and perhaps Wilhelmina had also done so, and they all quarreled and murdered one another. He knew only that he had not been involved, that he had come to this unpleasant place to exchange gifts, to eat Christmas Eve supper, and to borrow money from whichever member of the family, including the boarder, he could tap, and with it to spend Christmas Day in the company of a bottle. He continued to weep for himself; though, dehydrated, he produced few actual tears.
The police photographer had taken pictures of the body of Appleton the boarder, and the medical examiner having finished his preliminary business, the corpse was placed in a sort of sleeping bag and taken outside to the ambulance. Its appearance at the door put an end to the crowd's joking conjectures that a brothel-raid was in progress. A short, anxious man climbed the stoop and applied to the patrolman for entrance to the house, claiming that the fourth-floor apartment was his legal residence. He was taken into the hallway for questioning and eventually allowed to proceed upstairs.
Betty Starr was embarrassed by Arthur's possessive hand upon her forearm and subtly disengaged it. A detective who introduced himself as "Tierney" had drawn up chairs for the Baysons and himself.
"Mrs. Bayson," he said, "any time this becomes too distressing for you, just let me know." He had dark curly hair and his eyes were red-brown, almost amber.
"I have reserves of strength, Mr. Tierney," she responded, and Arthur looked at her in surprise at this turn of speech, though he had always admired her fluency; he believed himself inarticulate.
"Good," Tierney replied, consulting his notebook. "Could you be more specific about Wilhelmina's modeling, or Billie as you call her."
"For a long time she refused to do underwear." Betty shook her head vigorously, dramatizing refusal. "Stockings and shoes, but not underwear. She had nice legs and especially shapely feet, not long ones like mine." Betty looked down at the extremities in reference and waited for Tierney to make a flattering disagreement, but he remained silent and she continued, a short-lived edge to her voice.
"But after a while I guess she decided there wasn't anything morally wrong with it, at the beach nowadays the bathing suits are as brief as anything a girl wears beneath her clothes." Betty stared at Tierney, ready to avert her eyes from his, but still he studied the notebook. "Anyway, underwear fees are highest of all."
Arthur stirred uneasily. Billie had modeled exclusively for the cheaper magazines which appealed to the prurient of eye. Once, in a barbershop, he had watched a pimpled man stare at a picture which he recognized, two seats away, as a bare-breasted likeness of his sister-in-law. But he endeavored now to put the subject aside, so as not think badly of the dead.
Tierney of course knew from experience that murdered models were rarely of the type who figure in the pages of high-fashion magazines. He had already made quite an accurate estimate of Billie from an examination of her wardrobe.
He said: "I imagine your sister had lots of gentlemen friends. Can you name some?" Tierney had been a patrolman and a precinct detective and now was with Homicide. He was brave: he had once disarmed a fanatic who brandished a live grenade. He had gone to college for one and a half years. But he did not understand women as well as he would have liked. He felt that he could communicate more feasibly with his fellow man. He did not understand that Betty had made instinctive efforts to flirt with him and was now about to give him up as hopeless.
On the one hand Betty would have liked to reveal Billie's looseness, but on the other she was loyal, and perhaps also spitefully reluctant to emphasize her sister's popularity with men. Finally she named but two of the horde: Bobby Cox, a salesman, and Vic Carbo, a prosperous used-car dealer.
"But that was last year," Betty added, "and the year before. I haven't kept up with Billie's affairs lately."
Tierney changed the subject. "This boarder Appleton, his room was the one at the end of the hall on the left? And that was Billie's where she and your mother were found, and your mother's clothes were kept in there also, right? But where did your mother sleep? Billie had a single bed."
"Out here," Betty said in a strong voice, pointing to the sofa where her father sat with the older detective. "That opens into a double bed."
It was the sight of her father, weeping, that made Betty suddenly break down. Since the age of twelve, she had nothing but contempt for her male parent. But seeing him show this unprecedented evidence of humanity reminded her that she was now, except for him, bereft of immediate blood-relatives. Betty put her head into her lap.
Tierney patiently waited for the waterworks to finish, then brought up the subject of former boarders. Betty eventually named those she could remember.
On the sofa, Shuster said to Starr: "I guess you ought to go downtown, Andy, I really think you ought to. This place makes you nervous. Too many memories, eh? Hell of a thing to happen on Christmas Eve. These your packages?" Referring to the gifts, which were still in the corner of the sofa where Arthur had dropped them.
Overpitifully, Starr said no and emptied his pockets of the little tissue-wrapped packets he had brought along for each member of the family: the penknife for Arthur and cheap compacts for the three women. For the sake of his wife, who was not really obliged to entertain him on Christmas Eve—they had been separated for years and he did not contribute to her support—he had also remembered Appleton in a small way, with a pack of cigarettes.
Shuster unwrapped each of the gifts and stared at it suspiciously, learning nothing, but pounding home by still another means the suggestion that Starr was guilty. Shuster did not actually yet believe that Betty's father had committed the murders; it was simply his strategy always to put maximum pressure at the weakest point in any circuit, working as if he were a flow of water or electric power. He was immune to the fact that he and Starr were of the same generation and thus had at least an affinity of time. He would not have been a police officer had he any strong interest in human connections as opposed to disjunctions.
He said now: "Well, you hardly went broke on your Christmas buying, did you, Andy?"
He leaned close to Starr, smelling the man's feckless, musty odor, and said: "I'm going to send you downtown, my boy, and we're going to kick the shit out of you all night and tomorrow."
Shuster had made his first mistake. Terrified by implications, Starr was capable of a stubborn resistance to direct statement.
His spine appeared from nowhere, and he said defiantly: "All right. I don't have anything to hide."
Shuster had gone in too deep to back out. He directed an officer to take Starr to police headquarters; but with discretion, unmanacled, uncharged, for questioning only. Into the man's ear, he added: "If he wants a lawyer, delay. Delay till I get there, and don't give the name to the reporters."
The officer asked significantly whether there were special instructions.
Shuster had learned his lesson. "Yes," he said. "Leave him alone. Don't even take his arm."
Starr walked proudly to his daughter and kissed her forehead. He had not offered to do that in years, and Betty would have fended him off if he had. Now, however, she said, "Dad." Then he shook hands with Arthur and left the apartment, walking firmly. Because of that posture and the seemingly respectful distance at which the officer followed him, some of the people in the street took Starr for a detective. But this was not true of the newspapermen who had arrived long since and were waiting outside for Shuster to give them entry. They rushed at Starr like concupiscent dogs trying to mount a bitch, and before his escort could interfere, had got all his particulars.CHAPTER 2
On Christmas Day, Joseph Detweiler rose early as usual, washed and shaved at the corner washstand with which his room was provided, used the toilet down the hall, and made a cup of instant coffee by means of a hotplate. It was technically illegal to operate such a device in one's room, but Detweiler had explained his needs to the superintendent and got special permission to use the apparatus. People were naturally sympathetic to Detweiler and usually favored him. Bus drivers would even accept dollar bills from his hand; newspaper vendors, sitting sourly in their stalls, gave him directions without complaint. Detweiler was not aware, however, that he received special treatment. He assumed that everybody was habitually pretty nice to everybody else.
Following the coffee, with which he took nothing to eat, Detweiler performed a series of exercises that acknowledged the unity of mind and body, involving both muscle control and mental discipline. Though under the average height and slender, after years of this regimen he was remarkably strong.
Hours later he put on his outdoor clothes, walked to the nearest subway station through the winter sunshine, boarded the first train that pulled in, and as it lurched into motion he began his work, which was out of the ordinary.
Excerpted from Killing Time by Thomas Berger. Copyright © 1988 Thomas Berger. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.